Richmond Protest

A Richmond Police Officer defrayed tensions with protesters during a June 4 demonstration at the 4th Precinct in Richmond.

On its hiring page, the Richmond Police Department (RPD) makes a clear pitch for prospective officers to join the team.

“As Virginia’s capital, Richmond is a progressive city offering beautiful neighborhoods characterized by striking architecture, a culturally diverse population and noted historic prestige,” reads a note from Chief William Smith. “Our community policing strategies provide you with a wide range of skill development opportunities, from increasing your problem solving abilities to enhancing your interpersonal skills...”

The ideals are explicit in writing. And yet, the events of the past week demonstrate how much more needs to be done in practice to advance our city’s strengths and deliver that promise to our communities going forward.

What’s missing from the community policing conversation? Each year, RPD releases an annual report packed with quantitative measures that summarize the city’s year in policing. There are tables breaking down calls for service initiated by citizens and police; charts of violent and property crimes by precinct; month-by-month breakdowns of traffic stops; and more.

But the good work and the necessary defenses provided by police around the country completely are lost in the shadows of the bad miscues and the worst offenses. In the 2018 RPD annual report, the welcome note from Chief Smith is where the need for change starts.

“I can say with all honesty that we try our best,” he wrote. “Sometimes, however, our best efforts fail as in the case of a citizen losing his life in a police-involved shooting in May.”

That citizen was Marcus-David Peters. The 24-year-old African American’s name is nowhere to be found in the report. Why?

“Protests and demands for policy changes followed,” Smith continued. “Be assured that we take this and any other tragic incident very seriously, without equivocation.”

There is no reference to Peters suffering a mental health episode and charging at an officer. There is no list of proposed solutions such as the Marcus Alert, which would open a door for RPD officers to collaborate with Richmond Behavioral Health Authority in circumstances like this. Why? What will the 2020 report say? We’d like to see detailed qualitative assessments going forward, with feedback from officers and community members. There are disconnects that cannot be captured through numbers alone.

Look at page 14 of the 2018 report, with the column titled “Use of Force.” There were 141 incidents that year, with subsequent tables identifying the primary type of force used (such as a firearm or taser) and the number of injuries incurred by “officers” or “offenders.”

Then, there’s the critical “classification” of the use of force. Was it excessive? Was it justified? Was it an improper action? Was it found to be in policy?

Data capturing total incidents is not enough. Why was force used in each case? What was the reasoning that led to it being justified? Who in the community was affected? How did they react? Did the officer have a chance to respond? Should a policy change?

RPD’s mission statement is: “We make Richmond a safer city through community policing and engagement.” A better department and dialogue begins without equivocation and with more details. Transparency matters.

—Richmond Times-Dispatch

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