The ACLU of Virginia, along with Southerners on New Ground and Richmond for All, sent a letter today to Richmond Police Chief William Smith, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, and Richmond City Commonwealth's Attorney Colette McEachin regarding the recent protests against police violence that have erupted in the past two weeks. The ACLU-VA raised concerns over the Richmond Police Department (RPD) response to protests at Lee Monument on June 1 and other incidents of escalation of violence against protesters. The organization also cited a recent incident that occurred this weekend on June 13, when a Richmond police SUV was filmed hitting a crowd of protesters near the Lee monument. "We have received several intake reports, in many cases accompanied by video, documenting wanton and excessive use of force by RPD officers against individuals lawfully exercising their First Amendment right to free speech," stated the letter.
The letter went on to describe a few reports of police escalating violence against protesters that were sent to the ACLU-VA via its Mobile Justice app. In addition to these actions taken against protesters, there were public reports that members of the press who were lawfully present covering the protest were physically assaulted or told they had to leave the area. "Richmond Police have used that tactic to keep the public from “seeing” what should be public behavior," stated the letter. "That’s not acceptable and should not be permitted by department policy."
While Mayor Stoney and Chief Smith have acknowledged that the actions police took against protesters and members of the media before curfew were unjustified and excessive, that's not enough. "After-the-fact apologies are, however, insufficient to remedy the harm and ongoing risk that individuals face when exercising their constitutional rights in this city," stated the letter. "All of you must take positive action—individually and collectively—to lead changes in the laws, policies, practices, and police culture that allowed these events to take place."
The ACLU-VA urged these Richmond leaders to lead the effort to implement lasting reforms that reimagine the role of police in our Commonwealth and how we keep communities safe. The ACLU-VA also demanded that the rights of protesters be respected and protected and that there be no abuse of powers. "The ACLU stands with the protesters and expresses grief and anger at the systematic racism that has claimed the life of yet another Black person," stated the letter. "Curfews and other practices that target communities of color, particularly Black people, who are already over-policed, should be discontinued. We also urge the police department to enact policy that requires officers, before resorting to summonses and custodial arrests, to warn people about how to be compliant. It is dangerous to take people into custody, and even more dangerous to admit people to jail during the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis, as it puts people at greater risk for contracting the virus."
The ACLU-VA asked that these following actions be taken:
- Take public action to hold officers accountable.
- Implement measures to protect free speech.
- Ensure officers are easily identifiable.
- Demand transparency and compliance with official policies.
- Drop all charges against protesters.
In addition, the ACLU-VA also asked that RPD and the City of Richmond:
- Defund and divest from policing.
- Assess current policies with a racial justice framework.
- End policing of low-level offenses.
- Require transparency.
- Establish civilian authority over policing.
- Hold police accountable for misconduct, such as reopening the case of Marcus-David Peters and others, and ensure a thorough, independent investigation of all allegations of brutality and misconduct.
- Adopt independent investigations and prosecutions.
"We need equitable choice points when thinking about implementation and having community members engaged from the start," noted the letter.
You can read the full letter below.