Richmond police chief says there's still more to learn about Graduation Day shooting

Chief Edwards: 'Talk to your kids talk about conflict resolution before it escalates to this. This should have been a fistfight... but it escalated into gunfire and people lost their lives'
CBS 6 Investigative Reporter Tyler Layne and Richmond's Police Chief Rick Edwards
Posted at 5:31 PM, Mar 01, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-01 18:23:57-05

RICHMOND, Va. — Twenty-five years in law enforcement couldn't have prepared Richmond's Police Chief Rick Edwards for what he'd witness on June 6, 2023 outside of Huguenot High School's graduation.

“I’ve been to hundreds of murder scenes in my career. I've never been to a scene like that," Edwards said in an interview with CBS 6. “I’ve never seen bloodstained gowns, graduation gowns. I've never seen the sheer amount of women's shoes, and what that told me was how many women ran for their lives and their shoes came off during that fearful run.”

Eight months after a deadly shooting in Monroe Park, which occurred moments following the commencement ceremony inside the Altria Theater, we now have a clearer picture of what happened.

New information revealed in court this week showed that Amari Pollard shot and killed unarmed graduate Shawn Jackson in the back as Jackson was walking away, according to witnesses.

Pollard's attorneys claimed Pollard acted in self-defense, while fearing for his life due to threats from Jackson and his friends, but Judge Reilly Marchant ruled there was not enough evidence for the defense to argue that.

So, Pollard ultimately pled guilty to two charges including first-degree murder.

“I think the Commonwealth Attorney and the Major Crimes Division in the Richmond Police Department did a fantastic job," Edwards said.

CBS 6 Investigative Reporter Tyler Layne and Richmond's Police Chief Rick Edwards
CBS 6 Investigative Reporter Tyler Layne and Richmond's Police Chief Rick Edwards

Edwards was proud of his department for helping bring justice to Jackson's family and acknowledged this was a complex case to work, relying on surveillance video that wasn't entirely easy to follow.

The chief described the montage of video evidence as a "mosaic of all the cameras because there was no one shot that showed how this all played out."

"We had to piece it together painstakingly over the course of weeks before we could truly understand it," Edwards said.

The information in what was a high-profile investigation was sealed tight leading up to the trial.

Edwards admitted he wanted to share more with the public sooner but couldn't. In fact, on June 23, Edwards was set to announce new revelations in the investigation during a press conference. But he cancelled the briefing at the last minute.

When asked why, Edwards said, “I think the case got more complicated, as you can imagine. I'll leave it at that, except to say after learning information, I had a conversation with [Commonwealth's Attorney Colette McEachin], and she expressed some concerns about her ability to put on a fair trial with the more information we brought out."

This week's trial focused on one suspect, Amari Pollard, who killed one victim, Shawn Jackson.

But there were other suspected shooters on June 6, along with six more victims who were shot.

That includes Jackson's stepfather Renzo Smith, who also died that day.

Pollard was initially charged in Smith's death, but the charge was later dropped. A ballistics expert testified in court this week that the bullets found in Smith's body could not be traced to Pollard's gun.

“Do you know who killed Renzo Smith?” reporter Tyler Layne asked Edwards.

“I think that will come out in some of these future trials," Edwards said.

Weve only recently learned of two other suspects arrested in this case.

They were both juveniles charged with the reckless handling of a firearm.

“Now, those are misdemeanor charges, not a murder charge. Is there any reason why that's kind of a lesser charge?” Layne asked.

“Well, there's all kinds of legal theories as to why someone can be charged with a misdemeanor as opposed to, say, felony murder. We, as the Richmond Police Department, try to find the evidence, we talk to the witnesses, we analyze the data and present it to the Commonwealth Attorney. It's their job to determine what charges are most appropriate," Edwards answered.

WATCH: Will there be justice for 6 other victims in Richmond Graduation Day shooting?

Graduation Day Shooting: What about the other victims?

Though Edwards and Colette McEachin maintained the "truth" would come out in court, it's still not clear whether the juveniles' charges are directly connected to the remaining six shooting victims.

Following the conclusion of Pollard's trial on Thursday, CBS 6 asked Commonwealth's Attorney Colette McEachin whether justice would be served for those other victims.

“There are still ongoing investigations, and I just don’t want to make any further comment about those situations," McEachin responded.

Edwards confirmed police are not looking for any additional suspects connected to the shooting.

Looking back, Edwards said it's "easy to second guess yourself."

For example, Pollard testified in court that he did not see any Richmond Police officers leading up to the shooting.

A third-party investigation commissioned by the Richmond School Board into the circumstances surrounding the shooting found there were just five RPD officer securing the outside of the venue. There was an estimated of crowd of 3,000 people.

"Do you think you had enough security out there, and is there anything you would've done differently?" Layne asked.

"I'm thankful that we had, not only those officers that were at the venue itself, we also had seven officers along Belvedere Street, our traffic division," Edwards said. "And I think you could make that argument that on the way to this event, if Amari Pollard had been stopped with that gun and had been charged with it, then this series of events never occurs."

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Guilty plea in deadly Graduation Day shooting in Richmond

TEAM COVERAGE: Guilty plea in deadly Graduation Day shooting in Richmond

Also in hindsight, Edwards said the threats made against Pollard by Jackson's friend were never escalated to police. In court, Pollard testified that Jackson's friend "wanted to make his mother cry" and turn him into an RIP t-shirt, which Pollard interpreted as killing him.

"There's this red light blinking where people are threatening to murder someone or just the comment that was made in this case: 'I'm going to make your mom cry.' They know what that meant, and the concern is that the online threats turn into real world violence," Edwards said.

The threats made against Shawn Jackson's life were also never reported to police, Edwards said.

While Edwards said Jackson's mother did not report the threats to police, she did tell her son's school.

In the months leading up to graduation, Jackson's mother told Richmond Public Schools staff that other students "shot up" their home and "literally tried to kill him," according to the third-party investigation report into RPS' handling of the incident.

RPS employees, who knew that Jackson was a homebound student and not permitted at school events due to the "threat of neighborhood violence," allowed Jackson at the ceremony "without any consideration of safety concerns."

The investigation revealed multiple RPS staff failed to conduct a threat assessment upon receiving information about Jackson's safety, despite being a mandated reporter.

"I'm assuming if the school had passed that information along to you, it would have initiated some type of threat assessment on y'alls end?" Layne asked.

"Yes," Edwards said.

Edwards said he hoped the tragedy sends a message that "public safety is everyone's responsibility."

“Talk to your kids talk about conflict resolution before it escalates to this. This should have been a fistfight. That's what it should have been, but it escalated into gunfire and people lost their lives," Edwards said.

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