Too Much Police Oversight in Richmond?

The city's political leaders are fighting over whether to expand the powers of the police commission in a city where the police department has become a national model.

A heated dispute broke out recently among Richmond City Council members on social media over the question of how much citizen oversight is necessary to discourage misuse of police powers and to maintain a positive relationship between police officers and the community they serve. The proposal to increase citizen oversight in Richmond has been controversial because the Richmond Police Department has become a national model for successfully implementing community policing techniques that have reduced crime and created positive relationships with residents and community organizations.

At issue is a proposal to expand the Richmond Police Commission’s powers so that the nine-member body will be required to investigate every case of police-caused death or serious injury even when there is no complaint of officer misconduct. The oversight would be one of the most rigorous in the state. Currently, the commission only investigates cases in which a formal complaint has been filed. The proposed change is being driven by a 2014 case in which a Richmond police officer shot and killed 24-year-old Richard “Pedie” Perez, who was unarmed. Initially, the commission did not conduct an investigation in the Perez case because his family members didn’t file a complaint until after the thirty-day deadline. The council amended the commission’s charter last month to extend the complaint filing period to 120 days.

City staffers are examining the proposed oversight expansion to determine how much it will cost and to clarify certain elements, such as what constitutes a “serious injury.” The council has not scheduled a date to vote on the proposal.

The heated dispute has pitted Mayor Tom Butt, who opposes the oversight expansion, against the four councilmembers who support it: Jael Myrick and the three Richmond Progressive Alliance councilmembers, Gayle McLaughlin, Eduardo Martinez, and Jovanka Beckles. Butt contends that increasing the commission’s powers represents a form of “police bashing” and that it’s unnecessary and redundant. He said the council should be touting the police department’s success, instead.

Supporters argue that expanding the powers of the police commission is necessary because there is still a lack of trust between the police department and Richmond residents and that commission investigation reports could possibly make suggestions for better police training and protocols. RPA members have also cited police misconduct in other cities and states as a compelling reason for increasing citizen oversight.

Beckles, who is Black, pointed specifically to police misconduct problems in Baltimore and referenced the Black Lives Matter movement’s call for an end to police violence as a reason to increase the commission’s authority. She also contended that Butt was incapable of understanding the issue because of what she called his “white male privilege.”

In a hostile debate that has spilled into social media, Butt responded by writing, “I think [Beckles] is obsessed with what has happened at other places and other times. She cites Black Lives Matter, and Melvin Russell’s issues in Baltimore. … I think she is almost jealous of these other cities and hoping something will surface in Richmond on which to build yet another local political cause. We haven’t had a Black Lives Matter issue since the events that triggered the formation of the Police Commission over thirty years ago in 1984.”

Myrick distanced himself from his colleague’s comments, but said the fundamental idea of increased citizen oversight is sound. “Whether you’re talking about the Richmond Police Department, Chevron, or the Housing Authority, it is not the job of public officials to simply trust that people are doing the right thing,” Myrick said. “It is the job of public officials to provide oversight and enact policies that ensure that our constituents are protected.”

The issue of increased citizen oversight was raised largely due to the 2014 incident in which Officer Wallace Jensen shot and killed Perez. According to a coroner’s inquest, a clerk at Uncle Sam’s Liquor Store summoned police after Perez caused a disturbance in the store. Two investigations, one by the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office and an internal department review found no wrongdoing on Jensen’s part. Nonetheless, last month the city settled a suit, filed by the Perez family, for $850,000.

The officer-involved killing was the first in Richmond in seven years. To many, it was considered an anomaly in a department recognized nationally for its innovative approach to community policing, developing strong working relationships and partnerships with community groups, and for being successful at reducing crime. Last September, US Attorney Loretta Lynch praised the Richmond Police Department during a visit. “It’s clear to me that Richmond is working toward a holistic and comprehensive approach to criminal justice that is more than just an arrest but is trying to identify many of the causes that lead people to connect with the criminal justice system in the first place,” Lynch said.

Problems with police departments nationwide have been so pervasive that activists and politicians around the country are calling for increased police accountability. Last week, California state Senator Mark Leno announced a bill that would roll back the 1978 state law that keeps police misconduct and police shootings confidential. Legislators contend that the rollback will increase transparency, which in turn will increase public trust in its law enforcement agencies.

But there are questions as to whether Richmond residents actually mistrust their police department. An annual citizen survey showed public confidence in the department rose from 38 percent in 2007 to 59 percent in 2015. Citizen complaints about police misconduct have also dropped from five in 2010 to only one in 2015.

Regardless, Interim Police Chief Allwyn Brown, a longtime community policing advocate, appears to be unruffled by the controversy. Brown said in an interview that he doesn’t see any particular problem with a more muscular police commission, although he also doesn’t necessarily see a need for it. “I’m not worried to have another pair of eyes for checks and balances,” he said. “And I don’t feel the council thinks there’s a problem in the department. I just see them wanting to be leaders on this issue.”

Brown said the department has been proactive in responding to the Perez shooting by changing some protocols, including making it mandatory that officers have a baton with them any time they exit a vehicle. Brown also pointed to the department’s innovative policies when engaging the mentally ill. Last November, officers responded to a call of a disturbed man walking around an apartment complex yelling, knocking on doors and wielding a hatchet. Officers discovered the man was a resident of the complex who had a history of mental problems. When the man went into his apartment, the officers decided to leave him alone until he had a chance to calm down, which he did. The following morning, the man was arrested without incident.

“We had to balance the risk,” Brown said. “Do we forcibly enter his apartment and put somebody’s life at risk, or do we monitor from afar and not force our officers into a shooting situation.”


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