Cops, Courts & Prisons


Also calls on council to join protesters in anticipation of police attack on Marcus-David Peters Circle

Staff Report

Originally published June 22, 2020 to the Virginia Defender Facebook page.

RICHMOND, VA, June 22 — The editor of The Virginia Defender, one of more than a dozen speakers at this evening’s online meeting of Richmond City Council, demanded real input from the community in the selection of the next chief of police. He also challenged all members of council to join him after the meeting at the liberated zone of the Marcus-David Peters Circle, which police were expected to attempt to sweep at sundown.

These are the prepared remarks:

This is Phil Wilayto, representing the Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, which for nearly 20 years has been working to expose and oppose police killings in this city.

Last week, after the first use of tear gas against peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters and several blatantly false public statements about protesters made by former Police Chief William Smith, the Virginia Defenders initiated an open call for the chief to resign, or else be fired by Mayor Levar Stoney.

After gathering a half-dozen co-signers to the call, we planned to release it at 5 p.m. on June 16. But at 2 that afternoon, the mayor held a press conference to announce that he had already asked for and received the chief’s resignation. We released the open call anyway, and applauded the mayor for his decision.

But what at first looked like a victory for the protesters soon turned into a major setback, when the mayor announced his selection for interim chief: a former SWAT team member who in 2002 fatally shot Jeramy Gilliam twice in the back under circumstances that have remained suspicious to this day.

Interim Chief William “Jody” Blackwell has been on the force since 1998, which means that he has been serving throughout the nearly 30 fatal police shootings of mostly Black people that have taken place in the time since.

As a reporter for the Richmond Free Press, then the City Edition, and now the Virginia Defender, I covered many of those killings. Some resulted in out-of-court settlements for the families; some in indictments; and even a few in convictions.

In all this time, the blue line of silence stood firm. There are many officers on the Richmond force today who know very well what other officers have done, but say nothing.

Richmond is now at a critical crossroads. Thousands of people have participated in protests against the police murder of Mr. George Floyd in Minneapolis. They have also raised the case of Marcus-David Peters, shot to death two years ago by a Richmond police officer while experiencing a mental crisis.

Because of the angry and sustained protests, both the mayor and the former police chief agreed to the family’s demand for a Marcus Alert, in which the first to respond to someone experiencing a mental health crisis would be mental help professionals, and to the demand for an independent, elected Civilian Review Board with subpoena power to investigate complaints of police abuse.

But making changes in the way Richmonders are policed can’t depend on who happens to be in elective office at any one time or on the changing mood of the public. The community needs to have meaningful input into who the next chief of police will be. There needs to be a public vetting of candidates, open forums for questions and honest answers. There needs to be a mechanism whereby candidates that clearly do not have the support or trust of the public will be rejected.

The last few weeks have seen some very egregious examples of police abuse: the tear gassing of peaceful protesters; the use of rubber bullets, flashbang grenades and the indiscriminate use of pepper spray. Whatever level of trust may have existed between the Richmond police and the community is now gone. Restoring that trust means the community must have meaningful input into the selection of the person who will run that police force. Anything less is just a prescription for disaster.

I would like to also take this opportunity to emphasize the Defenders’ strong support for the demand of the Peters family for the dropping of all charges against all protesters who have been arrested for any reason in the recent protests. These more than three weeks of marches, rallies, vigils and confrontations have been a genuine and legitimate rebellion against decades of police abuse in Richmond and beyond. Complete amnesty for those arrested will be the minimum step forward to both justice and peace in our communities.

Wilayto then called on each member of council to join the Black Lives Matter protesters gathered at the Marcus-David Peters Circle, which still includes the six-story-tall monument to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Earlier in the day, state and city officials had issued an order banning gatherings on the grounds from sunset to sunrise, and a confrontation was expected.

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