In one of Richmond’s highest crime neighborhoods, a plea for police accountability. ‘There’s no respect.’

By: - July 14, 2020 12:01 am

Leander Vinson, 56, stands outside Gilpin Court, a public housing community in Richmond. (Scott Elmquist/ Style Weekly)

On the outskirts of Gilpin Court in Richmond, Leander Vinson stands tall, carries a cane and wears a revolver on his hip.

The 56-year-old says he’s watched as construction crews removed Confederate statues around the city, drawing nationwide attention. But like many residents in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, he has other things on his mind.

“I understand what the statues symbolize, and I disapprove of that, too,” he said. “But I’m more concerned about the way police officers approach men of color. That statue is not yelling and screaming at me. That statue is not throwing handcuffs on me.”

With frequent patrols and one of the highest crime rates in the city, the neighborhood’s 2,500 residents are more familiar than most with the city’s police department, its officers and their approach to fighting crime.

They say they’re sick of it.

Residents may disagree on the specifics of reform proposals like defunding the police. But conversation after conversation in the neighborhood returned to a common theme.

“There’s no respect,” Vinson, who moved to Gilpin with his mother when he was six years old, said. “Just because you hang out in the projects, that doesn’t mean everybody is doing drugs, everybody is selling drugs. It’s the neighborhood that I like and the neighborhood that I was raised in.”

Residents complain about aggressive officers approaching friends hanging out outside their apartments. They’re tired of frequent traffic stops made under pretenses they view as flimsy. And they say when crimes that do warrant a fast and decisive response occur, it often feels like police are nowhere to be found.

‘Wait ’till your asses turn 18’

The hostility people in one of Richmond’s low-income, predominantly Black neighborhoods describe is not new, but it rarely makes headlines. One high profile exception came last year, when a city police officer was filmed threatening a group of children outside a middle school after someone taunted him with an expletive.

“Wait ’till your asses turn 18; then you’re mine,” the officer says before driving away.

Public meetings ensued and promises of discipline and training followed. But the mother of the girl who filmed the encounter, Keisha Curry, said later that nothing about the incident surprised her and initially it didn’t even occur to her to raise a complaint.

“Being that I was brought up and raised in Hillside Court and Highland Park area, I found that officers acted like that on a regular basis,” Curry said in a subsequent video. “I found that to be normal when it came to my area.”

A police cruiser parked outside a convenience store on the outskirts of Gilpin Court in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The poor relationship is well known to prosecutors, defense attorneys and others who work within the criminal justice system.

The police department has touted its high homicide clearance rate, which it credited in part to community engagement efforts. But before he left office last year, former Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Herring warned he was seeing a dramatic reduction in cooperation from witnesses and crime victims, making it increasingly difficult to prosecute cases. “Solving crimes and prosecuting crimes are two different things,” Herring said of the department’s clearance stats. “You can clear a case, but that doesn’t say anything about prosecuting it.”

The comments came as he pushed city leaders to consider broader causes of crime and develop a response that addressed poverty, housing and education. The effort gained little traction, though Herring, now in private practice, said he’s seen renewed interest prompted by widespread protests and calls for reform.

“At some point, communities get over policed,” he said in a recent interview. “That’s not an epiphany. I’m not sharing a pearl of wisdom about that. … People are saying, ‘Look, I don’t need you to be occupying my neighborhoods. I don’t need you to be skulking around looking for low level offenders. I need you to help us be a safer community.’”

‘The police, y’all have earned all this’

Protesters in Richmond marched every night for a month following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police. But while the marches were prompted by a death in Minnesota, it quickly became clear that the frustration was home grown.

“People protesting right now aren’t really protesting George Floyd anymore,” Councilman Mike Jones told the city’s new police chief, Gerald Smith, when he was introduced to City Council last month. “They’re protesting what’s been going on in Richmond. … The police, y’all have earned all of this. You really have. You’ve earned it over decades of abuse.”

Smith, who previously worked as a deputy for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Police Department in North Carolina, has promised changes to the department, but so far hasn’t delved into specifics. During a conversation with reporters Monday, he began by emphasizing the low morale among officers and asked residents to rally around the department. “If you look across the country, police officers are being vilified,” he said.

Asked about complaints about the department, he said he had heard the issue raised when talking to a community leader and emphasized improving communication between police officers and the public. “Some of those things you’re talking about can probably be solved with very good communication skills,” he said.

Mayor Levar Stoney dismissed the city’s former police chief after a series of conflicts between protesters and police that included the tear gassing of hundreds of people on Monument Avenue. (His interim replacement, Jody Blackwell, held the position 10 days before stepping down.)

Among the protesters was Gilpin resident Titus Williams. He said he marched for a solid week, stopping only after his legs began to ache from all the walking. Outside his apartment with his seven-month-old son, he said the crowds were no surprise to him or his friends.

“If they see us standing outside or just chilling — we could be congregating with a couple of guys, politicking — and they’ll just pull up, hop out, tell us to stop what we’re doing,” he said. “They just grab you by the arm, grab you by the shirt or something like that, push you up against the car and start checking you.

“It’s regular police brutality, you know what I mean? It’s your average police brutality.”

Transparency and accountability

Protesters have made an array of demands, ranging from cutting funding to police in favor of other social services to establishing an emergency mental health response system, dubbed the Marcus Alert after Marcus-David Peters, a Black man killed by police in Richmond during a mental health crisis in 2018.

In Gilpin, residents said the biggest change they want to see is accountability to rein in officers they view as out of control.

“We have some good officers and we have some bad officers,” Padisha Brown said as she walked her dog. Contrary to calls to defund the police, she said she’d actually like to see more police in the neighborhood — not an uncommon sentiment in Gilpin, where there were four homicides so far this year and 67 assaults — but only if the department actually held officers accountable when they mistreat people.

Protesters call for Governor Ralph Northam to come out and answer their questions outside Capitol Square in Richmond, Va., June 2, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce / For the Virginia Mercury) 

“The police and the chief are hiding what the bad officers are doing and it gives them license to do it again,” she said. “And when they do it again, now we’re in the predicament that we’re in now with all the protests going on.”

A majority of City Council members have already endorsed the concept of establishing a police review board with subpoena powers to investigate citizen complaints against the department.

‘Police who feel invulnerable’

Several state lawmakers have proposed creating a similar authority to review local cases at the state level. Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, suggested the creation of a professional standards board similar to the one currently used to govern lawyers.

“Right now we have police who feel invulnerable,” she said. “They can’t lose their license for misconduct — they have to be convicted of a crime.” And if they get fired by one department, she said, they can simply get hired at an agency next door.

Herring agreed that more transparency could help deter unjustified use of force, but worried that a citizen review board could devolve into a “kangaroo court,” with board members reacting more to public pressure than facts. While in office he said he generally preferred to conduct investigations into police misconduct in-house rather than outsource them to neighboring jurisdictions. That included the investigation into the killing of Peters by police, which Herring ultimately determined was justified, a finding protesters say should be reconsidered.

He acknowledged that reform advocates have generally taken a dim view of allowing prosecutors to investigate allegations of misconduct against police departments with which they have close working relationships. As an alternative, he floated a proposal to create a special detail in the Attorney General’s office dedicated to reviewing and, if necessary, prosecuting police shootings.

Important changes could be made within police departments, too, Herring said. He said the phrase “community policing” has been used a lot in Richmond over the years, but questioned how meaningful its implementation in Richmond has ever been. “If there was robust beat policing, with officers embedded in communities for things other than acute calls for service, I missed it,” he said.

He said the city has also been slow — but still has time — to pursue diversion programs and alternatives to prosecution for low-level offenses, which has meant many people encountering the criminal justice system for low level offenses get punishment rather than help and support.

“Any time where you end up in a community where 60 to 70 percent of residents have had contact with the court system, it’s not a great leap to me that the community is going to resent our presence,” Herring said. “It’s going to lead to this weird disincentive to cooperate. On the one hand people want safer streets, but they don’t want to cooperate with a system that will achieve safety through what they see as harm.

“They see the idea of casting a wide net as more harmful than not, and that’s all we had to offer — a wide net.”

Wherever the debate lands, there’s widespread agreement in Gilpin that the current approach isn’t working. “How many of my friends have had a bad experience with police? Just about all of them, basically,” Vinson said.

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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.