Richmond City Council Accepts Police Data Sharing Proposal Despite Community Outrage

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

By Megan Schiffres
February 9, 2021

Opponents raise concerns over ‘predictive policing’ model, which they fear could lead to targeting.

RICHMOND – The Richmond City Council has approved an ordinance to continue and expand data sharing between the Richmond Police Department (RPD) and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Police Department (VCU PD). 

A majority of council members cast their votes in favor of the proposal, ignoring local demonstrators protesting near City Hall and despite testimony from activists who said it will hurt vulnerable communities. 

Members of Race Capitol, a talk radio show reporting on racial narratives in Richmond, were responsible for organizing the protest against the proposal before the City Council meeting Monday. A letter campaign, which members of council acknowledged resulted in several hundred emails expressing opposition the proposal, was also organized by Race Capitol. 

“As a student organizer, I’ve been deeply impacted by the violence and surveillance of VCU PD and RPD over the past year. And so I’m here to ask for the umpteenth time that you all defend Black lives,” said Race Capitol host Naomi Isaac. 

Despite this public outcry against it, members of the council voted to pass the proposal with a vote count of 6-2. Members Stephanie Lynch (District 5) and Michael Jones (District 9) are the only council members to vote against it. The only person to abstain from the vote was councilwoman Ann-Frances Lambert (District 3). 

Activists Say Council Has Blood On Their Hands

“The City Council will have blood on their hands should they support these papers. Because it might not be today, and it might not be tomorrow, but we know that one way or another the police will find a way to do what they’re best at. Which is brutalizing our communities,” Isaac said. 

Only people speaking in opposition to the ordinance testified during the meeting Monday. Speakers were echoing Isaac’s concerns, saying the ordinance will lead to increases in the policing of vulnerable communities. 

The ordinance allows the VCU PD to become an operational user of the Richmond Police Department’s records management system. Under the ordinance, VCU PD and RPD can also share equipment and materials. That might seem like an innocent enough proposal, but activists have been objecting to the records system since 2019. That’s because they say the system uses racially biased data to inform policing practices. 

“We know from countless other cities, the records management systems with the same capabilities as the system being implemented by the Richmond Police Department have exacerbated racial disparities in policing. We can not allow RPD to share this technology with other jurisdictions while its failed to address the racial disparities in policing that already exist here in Richmond,” said Eli Coston, member of the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project (RTAP).

Bias In Policing By Richmond Police

Both Richmond and VCU’s police departments have long histories of police brutality and of racially biased enforcement of the law. 

Source: Our Streets, Our Say: Policing in Richmond Report by the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project

According to a report compiled by RTAP, 75% of all use of force cases against the department from 2017-2018 involved Black people. During that time, Black people made up only 48% of Richmonders. 

Source: Our Streets, Our Say: Policing in Richmond Report by the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project

The same report demonstrates that 65% of documented interactions between police and pedestrians involved Black civilians. That means Richmond police stopped one out of every six Black people in Richmond during that time. Black people also made up 75% of all traffic arrests in Richmond from January 2017-October 2018. 

Source: Our Streets, Our Say: Policing in Richmond Report by the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project

This pattern holds true when considering the Richmond police’s enforcement of curfews on young people. 98% of curfew violations reported by Richmond police in 2017 and 2018 involved a Black young person. 

Bias In Policing By VCU Police 

The VCU police are also guilty of disproportionately policing Black communities. 

Source: VCU Police’s 2019 Bias-Based Policing Annual Review

According to their 2019 Bias-Based Policing Annual Review, 85% of use of force cases against VCU Police involved Black civilians. According to the review, at that time only 32.8% of Richmonders identified as Black. 

Source: VCU Police’s 2019 Bias-Based Policing Annual Review

VCU Police also disproportionately stop Black residents of Richmond. 55.9% of contacts between VCU police and pedestrians that year involved Black civilians.

Source: VCU Police’s 2019 Bias-Based Policing Annual Review

Of the 1,434 traffic summons VCU police issued that year, 48.5% were for Black people. 

“VCU PD is racist. It checks the ID cards of Black students and every Black student at VCU knows this is an issue,” said VCU Student Body President Taylor Maloney. 

Several council members who did not vote against the ordinance conceded that policing in Richmond is a problem. Councilwoman Lambert even made pledges to solve the problem of over-policing in Richmond.

“I will use all oversight and power that I have to make sure that there’s a remedy for the historic injustices that we face,” Lambert said. 

Then, she chose not to vote against an ordinance activists say will hurt over-policed communities. 

Predictive Policing in Richmond

The Richmond and VCU police currently have concurrent jurisdiction over the VCU campus. This means that they both have the ability to exercise their authority in the same area. The proposal approved by the City Council did not change this arrangement. 

Instead, it updates and expands the existing partnership between these two agencies . It does this by giving VCU PD access to the same records management system that RPD uses. 

Activists say the system’s technology for data collection uses predictive policing, which experts say is a racist and ineffective tool.

“Predictive policing uses data that we already know is biased to target particular areas for increased policing,” said Coston. “Use of these technologies will lead to even greater policing of these neighborhoods.” 

Predictive policing systems use algorithms to analyze historical criminal data in order to make these predictions.

After the decision by council, Richmond and VCU police are both using Soma Global for records management. On their website, Soma Global says “based on real-time and historical data, your personnel will see trends and patterns that will highlight recurrence of a type of crime, locations of crimes, and peak crime hours.” 

Despite this, both Richmond and VCU police are denying that the system uses predictive policing practices. 

Conflicting Testimony On Predictive Policing

Richmond’s Chief of Police Gerald Smith and VCU Police Chief John Venuti both told the council they support the ordinance. However, their stories about whether the records management system includes predictive policing tools was inconsistent. Chief Smith, for example, contradicted himself during the meeting. 

“It’s information that can be used to track trends and patterns of criminal activity that threaten, that are a problem for public safety here in the city of Richmond,” Smith said. 

However, after public testimony objecting to the predictive policing capabilities of this system, the chief’s story changed. 

“It does not possess analytical algorithms or the ability to do predictive analytics at all. I do know that,” said Smith. 

And while they will now operate under the same system, both chiefs insist the records system will not blur the separation between the two agencies. 

“With the new records management system, the system will provide a higher degree of separation between the agency’s records. RPD and VCU are separate, distinct agencies within the RMS system. Each system being the custodian of their own records,” said Venuti. 

According to the Soma Global website, its system “features an innovative cloud-based hub to connect agencies and their data.”

Richmond Police’s Partnership with Soma Global 

The city of Richmond entered into a contract with Soma Global in 2019. Even in the announcement of their partnership, Soma Global describes the system as being a tool for predictive policing. 

According to their press release, the platform will provide Richmond and VCU police with “advanced analytics and machine learning algorithms for smart policing.” Soma Global also pledges to provide “fully integrated web maps of geographically visualize incidents” in the same release. 

Activists at the meeting also raised concerns that the company itself has its roots in white supremacy. 

“In 2017, Peter Quintas and partners created Soma Global. During that time it appears that Peter Quintas was also organizing on a white supremacy platform known as Parlor,” said founder of Marijuana Justice Chelsea Higgs Wise. 

Soma’s founder and CEO, Peter Quintas, linked to his account on Parlor in a Twitter post last June. 

Parlor, a right-wing social media platform, is now offline following the white supremacist domestic terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol in January, according to CNET

RELATED: Hundreds of Domestic Terrorists Violently Storm Capitol Building in Attempted Coup Encouraged by Trump

President Biden Pledges to Create Police Oversight

President Joe Biden pledged to increase oversight of law enforcement in response to protests for Black liberation over the summer. In June, Biden committed to establishing a national police oversight commission within the first 100 days of his presidency.

“Let us vow to make this, at last, an era of action to reverse systemic racism with long overdue and concrete changes. That action will not be completed in the first 100 days of my presidency, or even an entire term. It is the work of a generation. But if this agenda will take time to complete, it should not wait for the first 100 days of my Presidency to get started,” said Biden.

The commission has not yet been established. However, advocates are expecting Biden to sign it any day now.

What’s Next

Smith says he will work to set up meetings with the community to discuss the new reporting system. Because they’re happening after the council’s vote on accepting the new system, these meetings are too late to change it. 

Want to tell the City Council what you think of their decision? You can find your representative’s contact information at this link

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