This story was published between issues of the newspaper. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes.
Originally published June 26, 2020, to the Virginia Defender Facebook page.
Local media has just reported that Richmond Interim Police Chief William “Jody” Blackwell “stepped down” today and will return to his position as a major in the police department.
The undersigned organizations welcome this development and call for meaningful community input into the selection of both the next interim and permanent police chiefs.
Many people thought it was a victory when Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney asked for and received the resignation of former Police Chief William Smith, who had publicly lied about protester actions and defended the abuse meted out by his officers during the current protests against racism and police killings. But Mayor Stoney’s choice of Smith’s chief of staff for an interim police chief proved to be a real setback for any attempts to achieve more just policing in the city.
Since Major William “Jody” Blackwell took command of the Richmond Police Department, things have gone from bad to worse. We have now been witnessing nearly nightly scenes of city and state police using tear gas, flash-bang grenades, pepper spray, rubber bullets and other instruments of war on the streets of our city. Videos posted on social media have shown police officers randomly gassing protesters, manhandling people trying to leave scenes of confrontation and otherwise acting as if they have received permission to take any actions they want to against protesters, whether peaceful or not.
Further, Blackwell came to his new position with a tremendous amount of disturbing baggage, including the following:
1 – On July 20, 2002, while looking for a suspect in a burglary attempt, Blackwell stopped and struggled with Jeramy O. Gilliam, 26, a man who reportedly did not meet the suspect’s physical description. Claiming Gilliam pointed a gun at him when he asked for identification, Blackwell shot Gilliam – twice, in the back. Police claimed to have recovered a gun – some 35 feet away from the site of the struggle, but the gun reportedly did not have Gilliam’s fingerprints on it. Eighteen years later, the Gilliam family is now saying they were told Blackwell had been put on administrative leave and then was no longer on the force. At the June 18 press conference where he was introduced to the public, Blackwell refused to answer a reporter’s question about the Gilliam shooting.
2 – In a July 2013 interview with the online Church Hill People’s News, Blackwell said he “became a police officer because I wanted to be a SWAT Team member.” He held that position from April 2002 to April 2013, which included the time when he shot and killed Jeramy Gilliam. In this sensitive time, the last person Richmond needed to lead the police force was a longtime SWAT team member.
3 – During Blackwell’s 22 years on the Richmond police force, there have been close to 30 fatal police shootings in the city, almost all of them of Black men. Several cases went before grand juries, some went to trial and a few resulted in convictions or civil settlements. If Major Blackwell has spoken out about any of these shootings, we have yet to hear about it.
4 – At his June 18 press conference, Blackwell vowed to “get the city back” after weeks of protests against police brutality. This statement was apparently interpreted by the department’s rank-and-file as a green light to disregard the civil liberties of protesters, journalists and even passersby.
At a time of great and growing tension between the Richmond Police Department and the city’s residents, Major Blackwell was the wrong person to be heading up the police force. His appointment gave a virtual green light to police abuse in the city.
While we welcome his resignation, we are calling for meaningful community input into the selection of both the interim and permanent police chiefs. Our city cannot move forward unless the community has reason to trust that the police force is truly here to “serve and protect.”
We further re-emphasize our call for all charges to be dropped against all protesters charged during the now four weeks of protests against racism and police abuse.