Richmond police won’t say how many officers face discipline for attacking protesters

By: - June 8, 2020 12:01 am

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief Will Smith (left) speak to a large crowd from the steps of City Hall in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. Stoney called the event to apologize for how peaceful protesters had been treated by police in the previous days. (Parker Michels-Boyce for the Virginia Mercury)

After a week of demonstrations demanding police accountability, officials in Richmond aren’t saying how police are being held accountable for tear gassing a large crowd of peaceful protesters.

“I don’t think the chief plans to revisit this anytime soon,” said a police department spokesman, Gene Lepley, of the incident a week ago Monday. “He has apologized repeatedly.”

Following two nights of escalating protests that saw businesses looted and burned, the department responded with a massive show of force that included repeated, indiscriminate use of tear gas and pepper spray on activists, journalists and bystanders.

The most high-profile incident came June 1 on Lee Circle, where a crowd of several hundred had assembled about half an hour before the 8 p.m. curfew set by Gov. Ralph Northam.

Out of nowhere, officers began launching tear gas into the group. In videos of the incident, officers appear to relish the attack. One is seen waving goodbye as people flee. Another officer was filmed chasing down a demonstrator to spray him with chemical irritants directly in the face.

The department offered shifting explanations, initially tweeting: “We are sorry we had to deploy gas … Some RPD officers in that area were cut off by violent protestors. The gas was necessary to get them to safety.”

The claim was immediately contradicted by video and witness accounts. A little less than two hours later, the department tweeted that Police Chief Will Smith had reviewed the video and agreed the action was unwarranted.

“These officers have been pulled from the field,” the department wrote. “They will be disciplined because their actions were outside dept protocols and directions given.”

But beyond that, the police department has offered no explanation for the attack. They declined to comment when asked again Friday who ordered the gassing and why.

Other questions the department wouldn’t answer include:

  • What policies govern the department’s use of chemical irritants?
  • How many officers have been disciplined in connection with the incident?
  • What disciplinary action was taken against them?
  • What was the finding that resulted in that action?

The department also refused to say whether any disciplinary actions have been taken following other incidents.

Police Chief Will Smith speaks briefly to a large, passionate crowd outside of City Hall in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

The department has said it’s conducting an “internal audit” after an officer pepper sprayed and tackled journalist Roberto Roldan with Richmond NPR affiliate VPM. A photographer with the station, Crixell Matthews, was also sprayed. Smith called it an accident, but Roldan, who said he clearly and repeatedly identified himself as a journalist, said the “tackle felt intentional.”

Police were also captured on video pepper spraying a group of three young women in the face as they walked down the street early Sunday morning.

“These three ladies were just walking down the street and you can hear in the video they (police) say ‘go home’ and then the ladies respond back ‘you go home.’ And they proceeded to spray them,” the man who filmed the encounter, Mikhail Smith, told WTVR.

Smith, who was hanging out of his second-story window, started heckling the officers and shouting curse words. An officer responded by firing the spray directly into his window.

Once again, the department responded by saying it was investigating.

The department is also facing scrutiny over claims that police only arrested people engaged in vandalism or violence while enforcing curfew and an incident in which an officer spit on or near a detained protester. The city’s fire department has also partially contradicted an emotional account by the city’s police chief that protesters set fire to an apartment occupied by a child.

Under Virginia’s open records law, which grant police wide discretion to keep records secret, officials aren’t required to release use-of-force reports and rarely disclose them.

Asked whether the department planned to share the results of its investigations at any point in the future, the department’s spokesman, Lepley, responded with one word: “Unknown.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.