RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) -
An investigation by 8News Investigative Reporter A.J. Lagoe exposes Richmond's Public Housing Police Department playing by its own rules and making arrests—where they have no right to make them.
VCU professor Jayasimha Atulasimha was pulled over by police.
"I was just pulled over for whatever, a wrong turn," he says.
But this story is not about a driver's wrong turn. It is about the wrong turn Richmond's Public Housing Police Department took at its very inception.
The death of the RRHA Police Department has been headline news since April 1 when it was shut down with no warning.
A former officer agreed to speak with us on the condition we protect his identity.
"You're dealing with people's lives. You're dealing with officer's jobs, their careers," the former RRHA police officer says. "You don't lie to us. You don't lie to the people."
The lie the officer is referring to was written right on RRHA PD's web page "the department provides city-wide law enforcement authority which enables officers to make arrests on and off RRHA property."
A.J. Lagoe: "When you worked for RRHA PD, you made arrests off of RRHA property?" Former RRHA Officer: "Absolutely on numerous occasions. At the time we were informed by the chief of police as well as the command staff we had city wide jurisdiction."
But who granted the public housing police, authority to make arrests off public housing property? Our investigation discovered the answer to that is - no one.
Every police department is supposed to have its jurisdiction spelled out and filed in an official court document.
For example, Capitol Police have enforcement power within capitol square and 300 feet beyond. A University of Richmond officer's jurisdiction is on university grounds and adjacent streets.
But the court has no record of any kind regarding RRHA and its officers' jurisdiction.
Responding to our freedom of information requests, both RRHA and the Richmond Police Department could provide no documentation granting RRHA city-wide arrest powers.
"That's a problem" says University of Richmond law professor Hank Chambers, who finds the discovery extremely troubling.
"We have laws for a reason and we have limitations on jurisdiction for a reason," he says.
We went back to the very founding of the department. In 2006, Hal Hazelton, the public safety chief at RRHA petitioned Virginia's Department of Criminal Justice Services to make his department an official "criminal justice agency."
He wrote his department was established to work towards the "detection and apprehension of persons engaged in illegal drug and criminal activity in and around RRHA property."
But it wasn't long before the public housing cops began extending their authority well beyond "in and around" RRHA property.
A.J. Lagoe: "Do you think you had a right to do that?" Former RRHA Officer: "I can't say. I would say no. I haven't been able to find anything that justifies us being able to do that."
Our search of records uncovered numerous traffic stops and arrests made nowhere near RRHA property. One citation for possession of drug paraphernalia was issued in front of City Hall at 9th and Broad. Professor Atulasimha was ticketed for disregarding a red light at W. Broad and Belvidere.
The record of arrests we obtained made off of RRHA property by their police department goes on and on and on.
We took the results of our investigation to Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Mike Herring.
"I don't think most people including prosecutors expected or thought RRHA was roaming the city executing arrests," he says. "The example of a drug charge or a cocaine charge…in all likelihood, that cocaine was discovered in the course of an RRHA officer's search and if it's not within RRHA jurisdiction that's probably a defective arrest and prosecution."
A.J. Lagoe: "Who gave you the authority to make those arrests?" Former RRHA Officer: "That's my question as well. Who gives us that authority? I have no clue."
The people who should have a clue are former chief Hal Hazelton - who has said to talk to his attorney - and RRHA CEO Adrienne Goolsby. We've reached out to Goolsby countless times in the last year about apparent fraud and mismanagement in her agency. The only response we get is "no comment."
But less than two weeks after we began demanding records spelling out the department's jurisdiction, Goolsby sent out a press release announcing the police department was being "discontinued" in order to focus on "the core mission of providing housing services."
A couple days later, they wrote to 8News regarding our demands for proof of their claim to city wide jurisdiction that they had "no additional records."
A.J. Lagoe: "Do you think there are people sitting in jail sitting in prison today for arrests you made that now you're questioning?" Former RRHA Officer: "I know there are! I know it!"
The Richmond Commonwealth Attorney's office is looking into this situation and has written a letter to RRHA telling them to preserve all their arrest records. We've reached out to former Chief Hazelton's attorney and have received no response.
What does this mean for people who were arrested by this department?
If you were arrested or ticketed by RRHA officers off of RRHA property, you may have a case to see your conviction overturned. The commonwealth attorney says if people come to his office with questions about one of these arrests, they'll review them on a case by case basis.