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Richmond police chief takes written questions at community conversations event: 'What kind of meeting is this'

Posted at 11:43 PM, Sep 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-15 08:33:20-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- A few dozen Richmond community members turned out to a Southside church Wednesday evening to discuss a wide range of public safety issues with Police Chief Gerald Smith.

The event dubbed "Community Conversations with the Chief" notably lacked direct conversations with the chief, which was pointed out by a man in the crowd.

Instead of asking their questions directly to Smith, people were asked to write them down on a notecard, hand it to a facilitator, which was then given to a host and read out loud to the chief.

The host, media personality Miss Community Clovia, read a notecard aloud that said, "What kind of meeting is this that we can't speak verbally? Police are doing all the talking. This is not acceptable."

“I believe we are communicating," Smith responded. "I believe this was the format that was set up for us, and I believe it’s working well.”

Wednesday's forum was the first of several arranged by police in an effort to strengthen trust and build relationships with the public. The series was called following the controversy surrounding admitted miscommunications and confusion about Smith's claims that the department stopped a July 4th mass shooting plot at Dogwood Dell, despite no evidence made public of a specific location.

However, among the dozens of questions brought forward by Southside residents, only two were about the mass shooting plot. One notecard expressed gratitude for the officers who investigated a tip of the plot but asked about "inaccuracies."

Smith answered, "I've done numerous interviews about the fourth and answered numerous questions over and over again. What I will say is what I've said always, is that the focus should be on exactly what I said: the great work that those officers and detectives did. They deserve the entire credit for everything on July 4th."

Community Clovia read a notecard submitted by Kim Gray, a former city council member, who asked, "Why were the mass shooting suspects treated as if they were guilty when there was no evidence presented to the court?"

"Kim, there was evidence and I'll let the case speak for itself," Smith replied.

There were several questions submitted focusing on traffic concerns on the Southside including speeding problems and intersections that some folks called dangerous. Smith said he's interested in creating a centralized method within the department to handle all traffic complaints.

"That is what needs to get into the ears of captains and lieutenants so that they can actually direct and come up with solutions and even problem solve," he said. "Being able to bring in all the data and the complaints at one point, that we could actually look at it and do something about it."

Other citizens wanted to talk about solutions for drug problems, prostitution, and gun violence. One question asked about the killing of 15-year-old Tynashia Humphrey. Police said Humphrey died as she was caught in the crossfire while walking on a city street near Gilpin Court Monday.

“This little girl had nothing to do with what was taking place, and it took her life. That could be anybody in Richmond, and that’s why it’s a community concern," Smith said. "It takes a community to prevent this from happening. We have to give our young people things to do. We have to build up opportunities for people. We have to support our school system. We have to do so many things."

Speaking on gun violence prevention measures, he said the department's gun violence interrupters program will launch soon. Those positions are reserved for civilians, who may have a criminal background, to target high-risk communities and develop relationships with people at risk of committing violence.

He said a supervising position is set to start this month.

"The people that we have chosen for those roles, we'll get them trained up and out in the community as quickly as possible. I believe that they will make a positive difference."

Smith gave an update on department vacancies. Currently, he needs to fill 150 positions out of 755, adding that being short-staffed means fewer opportunities for proactive policing.

"We do have some staffing issues. If we were fully staffed, we could actually do a lot more all over the city. We are not neglecting the city at all or any part of the city, but we need to stop the bleeding, we need to stop the shooting, and that's where we go."

Even if the department recruited all the officers needed, Smith said it'd still take a couple of years to get them trained and ready to report for duty.

One resident asked how Smith planned to train officers to make them more approachable.

"Oh, wow. I would disagree with that. Sometimes they may be tired and maybe overworked, but they're not necessarily unapproachable," Smith said, adding he's focusing on training officers to get to know the city. "When it comes down to understanding and dealing with people in special projects, special communities, and things of that nature, what we realized we weren't doing, was teaching them about Richmond."

Additionally, Smith warned residents about rising vehicle thefts which is currently driving overall crime for the city.

"Please go out to your car and secure your gun. Many people continuously feed crime by leaving their weapons inside their car unsecured, in a console, on the seat, and things of that nature. The number of guns still being taken out of cars is concerning, and that is that is a problem," he said.

Also in attendance on Wednesday night was 8th District Councilwoman Reva Trammell, who said she had "no confidence" in the police chief just last week.

“How do you get people to come here if our officers out here do not have any confidence in the police chief," Trammell said.

Trammell said she was concerned about what she considered to be a low turnout for the event.

And though only two people had questions about the mass shooting plot, she believed it was still a high-priority issue for residents in her district.

"You saw the chief shut them down. He wasn't going to talk about that," she said. "I know a lot of people still got concerns about the so-called mass shooting."

Trammell then offered praise for Second Precinct Captain KeShawn Manns, who gave a presentation at the meeting on crime statistics.

"Our captain has done an excellent job. He takes our calls. He's there," she said.

She also wants to put Smith to task to build relationships with the Southside saying, “Chief, I want to see you walking our neighborhoods.”

Smith said his department remains committed to keeping Richmond safe.

“We are here to actually make a positive difference in the community, and I believe our officers need to be recognized for that each and every day," Smith said.

Three more in-person meetings with the chief remain, all beginning at 6:30 p.m.:

  • Thursday, September 15: for Third Precinct residents. First Baptist Church, 2709 Monument Avenue
  • Wednesday, September 21: for First Precinct residents. MLK Middle School, 1000 Mosby Street
  • Thursday, September 22: for Fourth Precinct residents. Barack Obama Elementary School, 3101 Fendall Avenue
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