City Council members call for ban on police use of tear gas, pepper spray as demonstrations continue

Jeremy M. Lazarus and George Copeland Jr. | 6/25/2020, 6 p.m.
Ban the tear gas, pepper spray, flash bangs and rubber bullets that Richmond Police and their law enforcement partners have …
Ropes hang from the statue of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart at the intersection of Monument Avenue and Lombardy Street as protesters tried to topple it Sunday night. Police later arrested six people. Photo by Sandra Sellars

Ban the tear gas, pepper spray, flash bangs and rubber bullets that Richmond Police and their law enforcement partners have used repeatedly to disperse protesters clamoring against police brutality and racial injustice.

That’s the cry from two Richmond City Council members who have witnessed the demonstrations and choked on the tear gas, and believe its use by police needs to end.

Ninth District Councilman Michael J. Jones and 5th District Councilwoman Stephanie A. Lynch plan to introduce legislation next Wednesday at a special meeting the full council is expected to hold.

There is no indication that a majority of City Council will support the legislation.

Both Dr. Jones and Ms. Lynch were persuaded to push for a ban after attending protests last week and choked and gasped for breath themselves when police fired tear gas to clear the demonstrators.

The Richmond protests have been going on for 26 days. Initially sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the local protests are now focusing on police violence and racial injustices in Richmond.

From what he witnessed, Dr. Jones said police are using tear gas to disperse “innocent civilians.”

“There are other ways to de-escalate a crowd,” he said.

Ms. Lynch said she saw police indiscriminately use tear gas on June 15 during the early morning and then later that night to disperse hundreds of loudly chanting protesters outside police headquar- ters on West Grace Street in Downtown.

She said tear gas during the nighttime assault was rained over a six-block area “far beyond where the protesters were.” At one point, she and Dr. Jones had to duck when a canister whizzed by their heads.

She said the tear-gassing is not just impacting protesters, but also is wafting into apartments and homes and impacting people who are not involved.

She also witnessed police fire a volley of rubber bullets at protesters without provocation.

Ms. Lynch said police can use other non-lethal equipment to disperse crowds that does less damage.

She said use of the noxious chemicals and gas and rubber bullets have largely backfired, creating more anger among protesters. She noted the night protest on June 15 was a reaction to previous police assaults.

“I believe the police could do better if they were talking with people rather than attacking them,” she said.

She also expressed disappointment that police statements about what happened do not mirror the events. For example, she said a police statement indicated that people were throwing rocks and bottles at officers on June 15 before the tear gas and rubber bullets were fired, but “I did not see any of that.”

The most recent use of the chemicals came early Tuesday morning, when police dispersed a makeshift encampment protesters set up on Marshall Street in front of City Hall, blocking the street.

The camp was set up around 7 p.m. as a City Council meeting was in session. Participants were there to call for policy changes, includ- ing creation of a civilian oversight board for police; removal of Confederate statues; creation of a mental health response team to respond to certain emergencies instead of police; dismissal of charges against arrested protesters; and the release of the names of officers under investiga- tion for use of force.

Police arrived at the encampment after mid- night and, after issuing warnings to disperse from a declared “unlawful assembly,” moved in on the protesters who remained.

A task force of city and state police used tear gas, flash bang grenades and rubber bullets around 12:40 a.m., with videos on social media showing some officers firing at protesters at

close range. The Richmond Police Department reported 12 people were arrested on charges of unlawful assembly.

Earlier on Sunday night, police also issued a declaration of unlawful assembly during a protest at the J.E.B. Stuart Monument, where protesters attempted to topple the statue. Six people were arrested.

The choice to assemble Monday night outside City Hall came after protesters opted to leave their camping area around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue. Beginning Monday night, the state closed the grounds around the Lee statue from sunset to sunrise and imposed additional restrictions at the popular site.

The area was renamed by demonstrators as the Marcus-David Peters Circle in memory of the 24-year-old biology teacher who was shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer in 2018 when he appeared to be having a mental crisis.

On Tuesday, Gov. Ralph S.Northam addressed the ongoing protests. He said while the hundreds of demonstrations across the state had been overwhelmingly peaceful, it had become clear that Richmond needs a “different path forward.”

“After three weeks, it is no longer clear what the goals are or a path to achieve them,” Gov. Northam said. “Clearly, Richmond needs a different path forward. These nightly conflicts cannot continue indefinitely.”

Early Wednesday, police dispersed a gathering on the grounds reportedly without incident or use of tear gas.

In a statement issued earlier this week, the ACLU of Virginia slammed Gov. Northam for restricting activity around the Lee statue. “This action will serve only to escalate the tensions between protesters and police and will do nothing to advance either free speech or public safety,” the statement read. Local health professionals and legislators also have expressed concerns about the actions of Richmond Police. Five doctors associated with the VCU Health System released a letter Tuesday that was sent to the RPD calling for restrictions on the use of tear gas. The letter echoed warnings by other health officials nationally and globally that its usage risks an increase in the spread of the coronavirus.

“We are horrified to see the use of pepper spray and other chemical irritants against protesters,” the letter reads. “Pepper spray causes de-masking, coughing and heavy breathing. The use of pepper spray is antithetical to the public health guidance for avoiding COVID-19.

Meanwhile, multiple lawsuits, including a class action suit, have been filed against the Richmond Police Department growing out of the assaults on protesters.

Richmond attorney Thomas H. Roberts filed the class action suit on behalf of five Richmond protesters who attended a rally on June 1 at the Lee statue. The five, among other peaceful protesters, are seeking damages after being tear-gassed by Richmond Police nearly 30 minutes before a city curfew was to start.

Mayor Stoney and then-Police Chief Will Smith publicly apologized at a subsequent meeting of about 1,500 people outside City Hall the next day.