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Richmond police update use-of-force incidents, bringing tally to 94 during period of civil unrest
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Richmond police update use-of-force incidents, bringing tally to 94 during period of civil unrest

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Tear gas canisters were fired toward a large group of protesters in Richmond on May 31. Protesters dismissed an 8 p.m. city curfew and marched from Monument Avenue to downtown Richmond.

Richmond police have added 74 incidents in which officers used force during the recent period of civil unrest, mostly involving the use of chemical irritants, according to the department’s latest update of its public report.

The tally of the new incidents brings to 94 the number of times Richmond police used force from May 29 to June 26, mostly during confrontations with protesters.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the City Council’s public safety committee delayed until late September a discussion on the ban of these methods and others used for crowd control, though several council members questioned their continued use as demonstrations continue nightly.

Police Chief Gerald Smith asked for the delay in order to prepare written guidelines and policy changes that he’s already verbally implemented, including having him or his command staff make the call on when to use these dispersion measures. Before he took over the department earlier this month, Smith said “the decision-making point was too far down in the ranks.”

Under this change, Smith ordered the use of chemical irritants over the weekend when protests led to fires, damage to buildings and nearly two dozen arrests. These incidents should be reflected in the department’s July report, expected Monday.

Smith said he stood by his decision to use these crowd control measures last weekend, calling the crowd “riotous.”

“Banning these things outright, without the opportunity to revise and improve the policies around them, could lead to some other circumstances. If we did not have these tools the other night, that causes that physical contact. We’re going to have physical contact with people to stop riotous behavior,” Smith said during Tuesday’s virtual committee hearing.

The three-member committee asked Smith to come up with some alternative measures for unlawful assemblies.

In a story earlier this month, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that police had failed to include dozens of incidents of force in its monthly reports from May and June. At the time, police said there was a backlog pending review and would update the reports.

Police updated its June report on July 17, adding the 74 incidents from May 29 to June 26. An additional 20 incidents during the same period had been included in an earlier update.

It’s the first full accounting police have provided of its response to the unrest, sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, that began in Richmond on May 29. Most, though not all, of these 94 incidents stem from clashes between protesters and police.

The use-of-force reports have been posted online, updated monthly, since 2018, after Marcus-David Peters was killed during a confrontation with a Richmond police officer. Officers self-report the data.

A review of the earlier reports showed officers reported using force against Black people five times as often as they did against white people. But the latest update from police provides the racial makeup of the person against whom force is used in only 10 of the 94 incidents during the protest period. In a note on the report, police said they would update the report to reflect demographic data as those individuals are identified.

In many cases, like the June 1 tear gassing at the Robert E. Lee statue, these forceful dispersion tactics are used in large and diverse crowds.

Prior reports listed eight types of force, including the use of ASP batons, K-9 dogs, firearms, foggers, OC or pepper spray, physical force and Tasers. But in this latest report, 25 types of force were included. All but one of those added appear to be some sort of chemical irritant.

Council members Michael Jones, the 9th District representative, and Stephanie Lynch, the 5th District representative, introduced the resolution seeking to ban police from using tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades in the city, after experiencing these measures themselves.

“The tear gassings and the incidents that happened on Lee Circle, incidents that happened on various nights of the demonstrations, have caused significant and substantial harm to some of our residents,” Lynch said Tuesday in introducing the paper before the public safety committee, which neither she nor Jones sit on. “It was evident to me, having been on the frontlines myself, talking to both police officers and participants of the demonstrations, that we were not adequately training our police officers on how to properly use these non-lethal forces.

“When we put our police officers in a line, in a heightened posture, even with peaceful demonstrators and protestors, it is nine times out of 10 a recipe for disaster that ends in a heightened response,” she said. “I know that this is only one step toward helping us move the conversation to proper use.”

Smith agreed that more training, particularly for higher-ranking members of his command staff, was needed to make the decision on the ground when and how these chemicals and other measures are used.

Defending his decision to deploy chemical irritants over the weekend, he said the changes he’s already implemented show “these can be used effectively and used with restraint and used in a way that did not produce any kind of injury to anyone in the crowd.”

Ten residents spoke in favor of the ban. Several cited the 1925 Geneva Protocol that banned the use of tear gas in warfare, which came as a surprise to Councilman Chris Hilbert, who represents the 3rd District, and Chief Smith. Councilwoman Kimberly Gray of the 2nd District, where much of the unrest has taken place, said the same protocol allows an exception for use by domestic law enforcement.

“We heard council members come to the defense of police officers who were being heckled and hit by plastic water bottles. They called those actions violent. But where is the concern for Black Lives Matter demonstrators being pelted with rubber bullets and being assaulted with chemical irritants during a pandemic,” said Naomi Isaac, an organizer with the Virginia Student Power Network. “It’s clear that they are not using these weapons to protect and serve anyone but themselves.”

The committee, made up of Hilbert, Gray and Reva Trammell, the 8th District representative, voted to delay the discussion on any ban until its next meeting on Sept. 22. The committee doesn’t meet in August.

arockett@timesdispatch.com(804) 649-6527

Twitter: @AliRockettRTD

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