6/25/2020, 6 p.m.
We supported Mayor Levar M. Stoney’s call for the resignation of former Richmond Police Chief Will Smith.
But we were shocked when information surfaced last week that the newly appointed interim police chief, William “Jody” Blackwell, had been charged in a fatal officer-involved shooting of a man nearly two decades ago.
Even more disturbing is that Mayor Stoney has stated that he knew about Chief Blackwell’s record and appointed him anyway to head the Richmond Police Department as daily protests over police violence and abuse continue.
What was Mayor Stoney thinking?
Maybe during a different time, Chief Blackwell would be appropriate to lead the department. But tensions continue to escalate between police and large numbers of protesters in Richmond, who began taking to the streets after the horrendous Memorial Day killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
But the Richmond crowds have grown more and more angry in recent days, with videos showing police almost nightly pepper-spraying, tear-gassing, and firing rubber bullets into the demonstrators and once nearly running over protesters on bicycles with a police SUV.
At least two City Council members who have witnessed the protests have called for police tear-gassing to end.
As city leaders make moves to bring people to the table for less inflamed discussions over changing po- licing, the new face of Richmond’s police leadership cannot be someone who was charged with involuntary manslaughter in an innocent man’s death.
Chief Blackwell had been on the Richmond Police force about four years when he stopped Jeramy O. Gilliam, who was walking in a Byrd Park neighborhood in July 2002, and asked him for his ID. According to media reports at the time, Chief Blackwell thought Mr. Gilliam was a suspect in a nearby robbery, although he did not fit the physical description of the robber. After a scuffle between the two men, Mr. Gilliam was shot in the back by then-Officer Blackwell and killed.
Chief Blackwell told investigators the shooting happened after Mr. Gilliam pointed a pistol at him. There are questions about whether Mr. Gilliam’s fingerprints were on a gun found 35 feet away from where he was shot.
There were no witnesses and no police body cameras at the time. While Chief Blackwell was charged with involuntary manslaughter, a grand jury declined to indict him.
In a statement issued last week, Mr. Gilliam’s family said they were told at the time that the police officer involved, who had been put on administrative leave, was no longer on the police force. Since finding out in recent days that information was false, they, like others, also have called for Mayor Stoney to resign.
“What happened to Jeramy is no different than what happened to Rayshard Brooks in Georgia,” the family wrote. “There just was no one there to tape it.”
This is a cloud, not just over the chief, but over the entire Police Department and Mayor Stoney.
We call on Chief Blackwell and Mayor Stoney to address the issue publicly and to release to the public the transcript or record of any internal hearing or investigation of the 2002 shooting and any record of the proceedings leading up to Chief Blackwell being cleared of any wrongdoing.
During this time when police departments across the nation are under scrutiny for excessive force, violence, abuse and killings of unarmed African-Americans, we believe the people of Richmond deserve truth and transparency about the past so that real change can be made for the future.
It is important to build community trust going forward with the mayor’s “Roadmap for Public Safety Reform.” But all of the goals and objectives will be meaningless if the public sees no effort to fully acknowledge and address Chief Blackwell’s past.
During a brief news conference last week after his official appointment, Chief Blackwell refused to answer any questions about the 2002 fatal shooting. He called it “a completely different situation,” saying, “We’re not going to go into any details associated with it because that’s not what we’re here for today.”
He has since turned down all media interviews and avoided any public appearances, including during last weekend’s historic Juneteenth celebrations around Richmond. He has not been out among the people or talking with protesters.
True leadership comes not with shrinking from mistakes, but by acknowledging them, learning from them and showing how this community will not suffer the same pitfalls in the future because new systems will be put in place.
If that can’t be done, then both Chief Blackwell and Mayor Stoney should go.