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HOLMBERG: Why police shootings in Richmond rarely lead to violent protests

Posted at 12:24 PM, Nov 22, 2014
and last updated 2014-11-23 12:11:25-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Typically, Richmond-area police fatally shoot someone once or twice a year. Often, the victims were armed and/or acting in a threatening way or engaged in criminal acts when the shootings occur.

But there have been several instances in recent years in which the victims were unarmed or seemingly not acting in a threatening manner.

Yes, there have been protests and vigils, but nothing remotely resembling the unrest in the St. Louis, Missouri, area that accompanied the August 9 fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.

Why? Is Richmond just more calm, or have police and city officials developed enough trust to keep these tense situations from boiling over?

Having covered many of these use-of-force cases over the past 20 years, my feeling is it's a combination.

When many other cities were burning or at least simmering in 1992 after the Rodney King beating case, Richmonders in the tougher parts of the city sat on their shaded porches, considering the situation over beers in a bag.

The lunch counter protests here during the Civil Rights era saw protesters and police largely acting like gentlemen. There were no firehoses or snarling police dogs.

Different folks - from former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to Tom Brokaw - have described Richmond as a "hotbed of social rest."

David Melvin

David Melvin

But there have been some very decent police chiefs and some tough prosecutors ready to pull the trigger on police officers who seemed to have crossed the line.

Richmond Detective David Melvin was tried three times - and eventually acquitted - after he shot unarmed robbery suspect Verlon Johnson as a team of officers apprehended him on his mother's front porch in 2002. (A civil suit cost the city nearly a million dollars.)

And Richmond officer Michael Couture was tried twice and convicted of manslaughter after he shot Santanna Olavarria during an traffic stop in 2004 in the city's East End.

Santanna Olavarria

SantannaOlavarria

Noted Richmond-based attorney David Baugh defended both Melvin and Couture, along with two other local officers who killed in the line of duty. (Couture is the only Richmond-area officer in modern times to be convicted of killing someone while on duty. He, his partner and Melvin are among a tiny fraternity of police officers to even be indicted.)

Baugh is certainly no police apologist. He has been one of the nation's key defenders of those charged with death penalty crimes.

But he says the Richmond force has fostered a climate of a least trying trying to do the right thing instead of just busting and intimidating everyone they can. "It has been my personal experience - and I deal with a lot of law enforcement - I find the Richmond Police Department to be one of the better departments . . . they're more likely to try to ratchet down the emotions.

Michael Couture

Michael Couture

Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring, whose office prosecuted the Couture case, says he believes the citizens know prosecutors are being vigilant, will explain what has happened in these cases and will go after officers who cross the line.

"Historically, at least as long as I've been here," he said, "we have made an effort to come out and be straight up."

What do your think? Watch my video report and share your take on why Richmond hasn't seen a situation like Ferguson.

(Yes, we had the riot at the City Stadium during the "no-hassles music fest" in 1974, but from what I heard from friends who were there, that was more about partying than concerns someone had been unfairly targeted by police.)