RICHMOND, Va. -- Since accepting the position as the new Chief of Police in Richmond, Gerald Smith said one question keeps coming up when he meets people in the city and talks to friends:
“Why Richmond? Why now?”
The 51-year former police Captain in Charlotte, North Carolina, said the weeks of protests over systemic racial injustice and calls for a complete overhaul of the city’s police force was the challenge he wanted.
Smith said his mentors always told him to “take the assignment” with obstacles.
“Issues, challenges, reconfigurations, those are the challenges you want in your career,” Smith said during an hour long conversation with members of the press. “Did I come to Richmond knowing what was going on? Yeah, I did. And why — because that’s what I’ve done my entire career.”
Smith said he plans to guide RPD back toward the philosophy of “community policing,” which he thinks RPD slowly veered away from over the years.
Nightly demonstrations over the killing of Black people at the hands of police in the U.S. have continued for weeks in Richmond. Clashes between police and protesters have slowed of late, but officers have used chemical agents to disperse crowds and property has been destroyed by protesters in various parts of the city.
Local organizers continue to call for a list of demands they want implemented that include items like a citizen-led review board for police conduct, mental health crisis alerts, dismissal of criminal charges against protesters, and taking funding away from RPD to reinvest in public service programs.
Smith said he is supportive of citizen review boards with subpoena power and finding improved, evidenced-based methods for responding to mental health crisis calls. He did not support the idea of defunding police because he said that would severely limit the resources needed to implement a “community policing” model he wants to build in Richmond.
“That's the wrong question, that's the wrong issue that we should be looking at. We should be seeking to fund the change that we're looking for,” Smith said.
Last week, Mayor Levar Stoney announced a community advisory committee to reimagine public safety in Richmond. Smith committed to working alongside the group, saying that a vigorous conversation and “clashing of ideas” is a health process.
“Someone might have a suggestion about when we should take off or how quickly we can get there or how fast we land. But in all actuality, I'm the pilot. I have to make the final decisions on everything,” he said.
In two weeks on the job, Smith said the morale among RPD officers is very low, given the amount of work they have put in and the backlash against men and women in uniform.
"The officers that serve in this profession across the country are not the ones with their knee on George Floyd's neck,” Smith said. “If you hold them to that standard that they got into this job for, every last one of them would say they go into this job to help people.”
Helping people through service is the model Smith said he wants his department to adhere to moving forward. Over the years, Smith said RPD moved toward a more data-driven approach to what meant success. He plans to reverse that viewpoint.
“What I mean by leadership, leadership is about relationships. So we have to go out and build those relationships to do the work that actually needs to be done,” Smith said. “I like to be on the ground, I like to be among people, I like to be amongst the issues. In fact, I've actually walked out to the circle, the monument circle, to see the conditions there and see them first hand.”
Former Richmond Police Chief Rodney Monroe took over the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police while Smith was in a leadership position there. Monroe “overturned the apple cart” in Charlotte, Smith said.
“I kind of hope to do the same thing here. Not necessarily overturn the apple cart, but what he did is push us right out of our comfort zone. We weren't a great police department then; he pushed us out of our comfort zone then and we started to see improvement.”
Over the weekend in Richmond, multiple people were shot at different locations throughout the city of Richmond. The issue of gun violence has long been a focus of community groups and public officials. Smith said he views the issue of gun violence as a public health crisis.
“I was deeply involved in that in the department that I came from. It's all evidence based. It's very interesting work. It's very worthwhile work that says violence isn't just the act itself. That there are certain conditions that take place underneath that build up to that,” he said. “There are certain conditions, like poverty, lack of resources, lack of ability to connect with the power structure, that lead to these type of incidents. That is something I’m looking forward to picking up that work here.”
Smith said he is “100 percent” committed to meeting in-person with community organizers and protest leaders.