RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — William “Jody” Blackwell did not share why he stepped down as Richmond’s interim police chief after just 11 days, but a new court filing reveals Mayor Levar Stoney’s account of what led to the decision more than two years ago.
In a private conversation with Blackwell, Stoney claims he voiced concern in the wake of “controversy and public outcry” over a 2002 shooting in which Blackwell fatally shot a man while working as a police officer in the city. The mayor alleges they both agreed Blackwell would return to his former position as major.
A grand jury heard evidence and Blackwell was not charged in the shooting, but Stoney faced questions about his decision to have Blackwell serve as chief amid racial justice protests in Richmond in the summer of 2020 where officers and demonstrators clashed in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Stoney said he was aware of the shooting before naming Blackwell interim chief and publicly defended him after details resurfaced, saying he believed Blackwell was “the man to get the job done” after former chief William Smith was ousted.
Mayor Stoney tells his side
The mayor’s account of the June 26, 2020, conversation comes in response to allegations in Blackwell’s $5 million wrongful termination lawsuit against Stoney and current police chief Gerald Smith, which has advanced despite the city’s efforts to have it thrown out.
“Defendants admit that Mayor Stoney asked to have the room with Blackwell for a private conversation,” an Aug. 8 court filing from the mayor’s lawyers reads. “Defendants admit that Mayor Stoney expressed concern about Blackwell in light of controversy and public outcry regarding Blackwell’s involvement in a fatal shooting in 2002.”
The claims in Blackwell’s lawsuit about the conversation differ from Stoney’s. In the suit, Blackwell alleges Stoney told him he was concerned about his “well-being and mental health” and that it would be best if Blackwell resigned as interim police chief but does not mention the 2002 shooting.
“Defendants admit that Mayor Stoney and Blackwell mutually agreed that Blackwell would return to his position as Major,” the city’s filing adds. “Defendants admit that Blackwell voluntarily resigned from the position of Interim Police Chief, and that Mayor Stoney subsequently announced that Chief Smith would become the new Chief of Police.”
“Outside of court filings and proceedings, the city does not publicly comment on ongoing or pending litigation,” Stoney spokesperson Jim Nolan wrote in an email Thursday.
Questions remain about quick hire of RPD chief
The court filing from the city sheds light on Stoney’s alleged account of what led Blackwell to resign after 11 days as interim chief and provides more insight into the time ahead of the hiring of Gerald Smith as police chief.
Hours after Blackwell sent an email to the department sharing he was stepping down as interim chief, which did not specify a reason for the decision, Stoney held a press conference announcing the appointment of Gerald Smith.
“I am grateful for Interim Chief Blackwell’s continued service to the Richmond Police Department,” Stoney said in his statement. “Since the departure of former Chief William Smith, we have been searching for a permanent chief. I’m excited for Gerald Smith, a proven change-agent, to serve Richmond in that capacity.”
Stoney, who vowed the city would conduct a national search for a new police chief while Blackwell served in the interim role, said he handpicked Gerald Smith after receiving recommendations from former Richmond police chiefs and others.
“In an ideal world, the mayor would have liked to have extended and expanded the hiring process over a longer period of time,” Nolan told 8News in 2020, “but given the ongoing unrest in the city, the Mayor thought it was important to bring in a proven leader, sooner rather than later, who could guide the department through the reforms we know are needed today and work alongside the community in reimagining public safety into the future.”
Stoney told reporters the city talked with “a number of candidates,” but a total number was not provided. On Thursday, Nolan declined to answer how many police chief candidates were considered.
City denies most of Blackwell’s lawsuit allegations, but admits to some
Blackwell was fired seven months later by chief Smith as “retaliation,” Blackwell alleges in the lawsuit, for not complying with an order from Stoney to have officers stationed around the city’s Confederate monuments as contractors removed them.
The lawsuit argues that following Stoney’s request would have left Blackwell and police officers open to criminal liability because it would have violated a law in place at the time prohibiting authorities from disturbing or interfering with any monuments or memorials.
That clause in the Virginia code was removed through legislation in April 2020, but the change didn’t go into effect until July 1, 2020, after Blackwell alleges Stoney made the order.
Stoney and Smith deny most of Blackwell’s allegations in the Aug. 8 court filing, including claims that Blackwell was fired out of “retaliation” for not following any request and that the mayor told Blackwell he hoped he would apply for the permanent job.
The city does, however, admit in its filing that Stoney and Blackwell spoke “on or about June 24, 2020,” about the possibility of having officers stand guard when the statues were removed.
Blackwell claims he mentioned the specific code that restricted officers from taking part in the process during the conversation, an allegation that the city could not admit or deny. The city’s filing does challenge the legal conclusion that it would have violated state law.
The city also admitted to Blackwell’s claim that Stoney met with him and the police department’s general counsel at the time, David Mitchell, on June 26, 2020, about the monuments. The lawsuit alleges Blackwell and Mitchell shared “their professional and legal advice that it would be illegal to have RPD officers involved in removal of the monuments in violation of the aforementioned Virginia statutes.”
Stoney admitted to Blackwell’s allegations about the discussion in the court filing, but denied “the legal conclusion that ‘removal of the monuments’ would violate the ‘aforementioned Virginia statutes.'”
The city asked Richmond’s Circuit Court to dismiss Blackwell’s lawsuit in its filing, a request that came after a state appeals court declined to hear its bid to review a judge’s rulings allowing it to move forward.