Richmond’s City Council Can’t Decide If Former Cops Should Be Allowed to Monitor the Police

Council members pass an ordinance to allow data sharing despite public outcry

By Arianna Coghill

December 9, 2020

Debate continues as the city council looks to set up a citizen review board to hold police accountable.

RICHMOND-If a group’s being set up to monitor the police, should officers help decide who serves on it? That’s the question Richmond’s city council can’t answer. 

Review boards have been around in the Commonwealth for years. Thanks to changes made in the General Assembly’s special session through SB5035, the groups now receive, investigate and issue findings on complaints involving officers or police department employees. The goal is to give citizens an active role in holding police officers accountable in cases of misconduct and harassment. The new law also lets retired law enforcement officers serve, but only in an advisory role. They can’t actually vote. 

But if officers can’t serve as a board’s voting members, why should they be able to help choose who does make the list? Council members debated that during their meeting Monday. This gets a bit complicated. The council wants to set up a taskforce for the job. This group would sort through resumes and interview candidates. The people they recommend would then become Richmond’s review board. 

There are 19 candidates that have to get reduced to nine. Two of those candidates previously worked for law enforcement- John Dixon III, a former Richmond police officer and retired Petersburg police chief and Charlene L. Hinton, who’s worked in law enforcement for 20 years. The Public Safety Committee nominated both candidates.

However, several council members and police reform advocates say this should be an opportunity for communities that face the most police violence to take priority.

“I believe the right thing to do is build public trust in this process,” said Councilman Michael Jones. “And I have nothing against Dixon. I just don’t think it’s the right appointment. I’d like to see other individuals who are from the communities that have a desire to serve get that opportunity.”

Removing Police from the Process?

While it might seem easy on paper, putting together a civilian review board is much easier said than done. There is no one size fits all when it comes to CRBs, because each city has unique problems. That’s why the council wants a taskforce to review board candidates. 

“In terms of creating a successful citizen review board, that’s going to look different in every community,” said Dr. Eli Coston, a data analyst who’s worked with the RTAP for over three years. “Richmond is creating a task force that will gather community input to determine what exactly civilian oversight will look like here because there are a lot of different models. Hopefully this will result in something that will create meaningful input for community members in meaningful change for the Richmond police department.”

However, according to Coston, there are a few things CRBs need to have in common. Mainly, it must be completely separate from the police department. This way it will be easier to hold officers accountable without the department’s interference.

“One of the really important mechanisms of civilian oversight is that disciplinary authority over police,” said Coston. “To say, these are not the standards that we support, and if you break those standards, we will hold you accountable.”

Many council members spoke in favor of Hinton and Dixon’s inclusion in the taskforce, citing Dixon’s own civilian insight board that he created as police chief for Petersburg.

RELATED: Virginia’s General Assembly Just Gave Police Some Civilian Oversight

Amplifying Unheard Voices

City council members want to make the review board as diverse as possible. Right now, the CRB nominees include lawyers, doctors and other community leaders.

“We have to make sure that we have a balance between those who feel like they have not had a voice,” said Councilwoman Ellen Robertson. “It’s important that they have representation. We need to hear their voices.”

While police misconduct can affect anyone, there are certain groups more likely to face it than others. In Richmond police officers are more likely to target Black people for traffic arrests, truancy charges and curfew violations. In 2019, RTAP released data that showed that Black people made up 75% of all use of force arrests, despite only being 48% of the population. Data also showed that police officers were more likely to use tasers and canine forces against Black Richmonders.

Despite this overrepresentation, data shows that white and Black people actually commit crimes at a similar rate.

“I think what the data really shows us is that these are not bad apples and tones, but that black Richmonders are being targeted in ways that white Richmonders are not,” said Coston.

Here’s the issue. The taskforce will interview candidates who may have had negative experiences with police officers. Coston worries that potential survivors of police misconduct might not come forward, if law enforcement officers are a part of the taskforce.

“The idea that there would be former law enforcement officers appointed to that taskforce, sitting in the room, doing those listening sessions might create distrust with community members that might be a barrier to their engagement in that process,” said Coston. “They might not want to disclose as much. They might not even want to come to those kind of listening sessions because of previous bad experiences.”

Limited Number of Spots

Because there were only nine spots available, plenty of people are fighting for a seat at the table. Many argue with such limited space, spots should go to someone from a community impacted by overpolicing.

Technically, anyone who lives in one of Richmond’s nine districts could apply. But, some organizations and committees nominated residents who they thought could contribute good ideas.

For example, 12 separate LGBTQ organizations, like Diversity Richmond and Equality Virginia, nominated Coston to join the taskforce. In a letter to the council, the groups also recommended that Dixon be removed from the running. They suggested he act as a consultant instead.

“We are also writing to urge you to reject the nominations of the two former law enforcement officers to the taskforce,” the letter said. “We recognize and accept that input and guidance from law enforcement will be needed to inform the work of the taskforce.  However, we believe this input and guidance can be provided through consulting roles rather than through membership on the taskforce.”

In an effort to keep things diverse, the city council reserved three spots- one for someone under the age of 18, one for a person with disabilities and another for a person living in public housing. According to Coston, this put even more pressure on other marginalized groups to secure a spot on the taskforce team. Everyone wants an opportunity to have their voice heard.

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What’s Next? 

On Monday, the committee decided that they won’t interview any of the taskforce candidates. Instead, they’ll review the resumes of their current nominees and hear recommendations for changes. That didn’t sit well with everyone, however.

“I think that the interview process is important because I want to make sure that we have the level of representation and the balance of representation in this taskforce,” said Robertson.

The next meeting for city council is set for Dec. 14. At that point, they’ll choose taskforce members. Well, that’s the plan at least. So far, the council has delayed these meetings for three months. Once put together, the taskforce will have until March 21 to put together a CRB plan. Their first deadline to turn in a rough draft to the council is Jan. 14.

Arianna Coghill is a content producer for the Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

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