RICHMOND, Va -- No Richmond police officers will face criminal charges for deploying tear gas into a peaceful crowd of protesters at the Lee Circle in 2020. Richmond Police have since admitted that act should have never happened.
Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Colette McEachin released her findings late Friday, announcing officers did not break the law when they sprayed chemical agents toward demonstrators gathered at the Robert E. Lee statue on June 1, 2020.
"I was hard pressed to find a more peace and love-centric protest in my life," Jarrod Blackwood who was tear gassed during the incident, said.
Blackwood later joined a federal lawsuit against the City of Richmond which stated the constitutional rights of multiple protesters were violated.
"What I saw happen that day was just so egregious that I knew in my heart that something had to be done," Blackwood said.
The city reached an agreement with the plaintiffs which has led to more transparency as to what happened the evening of the incident.
As part of a settlement, Richmond Police retracted a false statement on Twitter that claimed the protesters were violent. Additionally, the department was ordered to release all police records including body camera footage, dispatch recordings, and officer narratives for the public to access.
After hearing the most recent development, in which McEachin announced officers' use of tear gas was lawful, Blackwood expressed disappointment.
“It saddens me, but it's not surprising. It's what we have come to expect from the, I'm going to just kind of call it— the criminal justice system protecting itself," Blackwood said. "That should send a clear message to Richmonders and anyone who has experienced excessive use of force by the police or police wrongdoing-- that you cannot depend on Colette McEachin's office to go about seeking justice for you."
While calling it an error, McEachin said police did not break the law, because there was no criminal intent behind their actions.
At the time of the incident, she said a separate violent and destructive protest was taking place at the J. E. B. Stuart statue where people were sawing at the monument and tying rope around it.
However, when former Richmond Police Chief Will Smith and command leaders signaled the green light to use gas, she said they gave unclear commands about which location to target, leading to officers mistakenly gassing people gathered at Lee.
Additionally, when officers arrived at the monument, she said they did not have a 360-degree view of the area, because protesters formed a line across the circle.
"Police officers who were here could have simply walked around the monument to determine if anyone was trying to bring it down. They were in no danger. They could have walked around the monument, seeing that no one was doing anything, and literally just held their positions until curfew, which was a few minutes down the line," Blackwood said. At the time, an 8 p.m. curfew was in effect. The incident happened around 7:30 p.m.
Blackwood also took issue with officers not trying to engage demonstrators to rectify the perceived problem before deploying chemicals.
"When the police arrived, they never identified themselves. They never spoke to the crowd. They never asked people to disperse-- the most obvious things that you would expect someone to do. So, issue a lawful order to the crowd, and ask the crowd to leave," Blackwood said.
Meanwhile, VCU policing researcher and criminal justice professor, Dr. William Pelfrey, said he doesn't blame officers for not negotiating with protesters.
“Ideally, police can work with protesters to come to a peaceful resolution. Police had tried that in Richmond and were met with little success," Pelfrey said.
While recognizing it was a tumultuous time and that police communication was uncertain, Pelfrey agreed with McEachin's findings.
“I think that the determination was the right one. It's very difficult to prove intent, and that’s the burden," he said. "Police acted, not with criminal intent, but in a way that was unfortunate."
Pelfrey said officers are expected to follow orders from supervisors, but not orders they know are wrong.
However, in this circumstance, he said right and wrong wasn't black and white.
“Firing tear gas at a group of protesters during a time when other protesters had been dangerous, people had been hurt, and property had been destroyed-- that was not an unreasonable thing for supervisors to tell police to do," he said.
Ideally, Pelfrey said officers would've received more clear information about the issue at hand.
“Police have to act with the information that's available, sometimes in exigent circumstances with time pressures and safety pressures," he said.
The Richmond Police Department said now that McEachin's investigation is complete, it can begin its administrative investigation.
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