In $5 million lawsuit, former interim Richmond police chief claims he was fired for refusing request from Stoney

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – William “Jody” Blackwell claims in a $5 million lawsuit against the city of Richmond that he was fired for refusing to follow Mayor Levar Stoney’s request to have Richmond police officers stand guard during the removal of the city’s Confederate monuments. 

Blackwell was tapped by Stoney to be Richmond’s interim police chief on June 16, 2020, after the mayor asked Chief William Smith to resign in the wake of clashes between protesters and officers during civil unrest that summer following the police killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

In the wrongful termination lawsuit, filed in July in Richmond Circuit Court, Blackwell alleges he was fired by Chief Gerald Smith seven months after returning to his old position “in retaliation for refusing to carry out Mayor Stoney’s illegal order” to have officers stationed around the city’s Confederate monuments as contractors removed them.

Attorneys representing the city seek to have the lawsuit dismissed, citing sovereign immunity and “factually and legally deficient” claims from Blackwell in a demurrer — a legal motion pleading the court for a dismissal — filed in August. In the filing, the city’s counsel argues Blackwell does not have sufficient evidence to establish he was terminated because of his refusal “to engage in the alleged criminal activity.”

A hearing for the city’s motion for dismissal was set for Monday but Judge David Eugene Cheek Sr. recused himself hours before it was set to take place, according to Blackwell’s attorney.

“I, D. Eugene Cheek, am of the opinion that I am so situated in respect to the above styled case as to render it improper for me to preside and therefore, I recuse myself,” Cheek wrote in the order.

In his lawsuit, Blackwell said he expressed concerns with Stoney days before and during a meeting with the Richmond Police Department’s general counsel on June 26, 2020. Blackwell claims he and RPD’s general counsel at the time, David Mitchell, informed Stoney that such a request would violate a law prohibiting authorities from disturbing or interfering with any monuments or memorials.

That specific clause in the Virginia code was removed through legislation in April 2020, but the change didn’t go into effect until July 1, 2020.

During the meeting on June 26, 2020, the lawsuit alleges, Stoney asks Mitchell to leave the room. “With Mitchell absent, Mayor Stoney told Blackwell that he was concerned for Blackwell’s ‘well-being and mental health.’ Mayor Stoney then said it would be best if Blackwell stepped down as Interim Chief of Police,” the lawsuit claims.

Mitchell did not respond to 8News’ request for comment on whether the meeting took place.

Blackwell resigned as Richmond’s interim police chief that day, less than two weeks after taking over the position. Later that night, Stoney announced he picked Gerald Smith, the deputy police chief Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, to be the city’s next police chief.

Stoney’s appointment of Blackwell came under scrutiny around the same time after details of Blackwell’s past made headlines. While on duty in 2002, Blackwell fatally shot a Richmond man. Stoney said he was aware of the incident, in which a grand jury cleared Blackwell of wrongdoing, before he picked him to serve as interim chief.

When Smith took over as chief on July 1, 2020, Blackwell returned to his previous position as major. On Feb. 2, 2021, Chief Smith told Blackwell his “services were no longer needed,” the lawsuit claims.

His termination, Blackwell alleges, breaches a contract he signed with the city after taking over as interim chief. On June 16, 2020, Blackwell claims Stoney came to his house to ask him to serve as interim chief, but Blackwell shared his concerns over how the new role could impact his job security in the department.

To address the concerns, Blackwell was given a letter that day signed by the Richmond interim Chief Administrative Officer at the time, Lenora Reid, that said he would return to his old position as major should he be removed as interim chief. Blackwell also claims that Stoney encouraged him to apply for the permanent job.

Blackwell’s lawsuit claims the city breached his contract when he was fired by Chief Smith. The city’s counsel argues in their demurrer that the letter was not a contract and did not guarantee Blackwell’s “employment with the RPD in perpetuity.”

The city also argues that Chief Smith had no knowledge of Blackwell’s claims before firing him. But in a counter to the city’s motion, Blackwell’s attorney asserts that “since Mayor Stoney hired Chief Smith immediately after Blackwell refused to help remove the monuments, Blackwell can infer that Chief Smith was made aware of the circumstances under which he was hired so hurriedly.”

A spokesperson for Stoney said Tuesday that “the city does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.”

The lawsuit asserts complying with the request would have exposed Blackwell and RPD officers “to criminal liability.” Blackwell alleges Stoney was aware that those who complied would have violated Virginia code, pointing to an op-ed for the New York Times where Stoney acknowledged he was “risking legal action personally” for his decision to move forward with the removal process.

Stoney cited an emergency ordinance adopted by the Richmond City Council in response to the coronavirus pandemic and public safety concerns when he bypassed a 60-day removal process established by the state to have the city’s first Confederate monument removed on July 1, the first day local governments had the authority to remove Confederate monuments.

Members of the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office were monitoring Lombardy Street and Monument Avenue when the J.E.B. Stuart statue was taken down, video from the day shows.

The city argues any violation of the statute was not criminal after the Virginia Supreme Court ruled it had no retroactive effect in April 2021 in a case in the city of Charlottesville. The state’s Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s ruling that the city’s efforts to move or cover two Confederate statues were prohibited by the Virginia code.

The suit alleges the city violated a Virginia code barring the firing of an employee who “refuses to engage in a criminal act that would subject the employee to criminal liability.” Blackwell’s complaint also claims violations of Virginia public policy.

“It is apparent that Mayor Stoney resented Blackwell’s refusal to obey the order Blackwell believed to be criminal, and therefore it is not surprising that Mayor Stoney subsequently fired Blackwell in retribution,” Blackwell’s attorney claims in a filing seeking to have the court overrule the city’s demurrer.

Blackwell claims in the lawsuit that he was only 18 months away from securing his full pension before he was fired. His lawsuit seeks $5 million in compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney fees and any other costs the court deems proper.

Judge Phillip L. Hairston will preside over the case but a demurrer hearing hasn’t be rescheduled.

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