Richmond Police Chief addresses uptick in violent crimes, new billboards: ‘they just insulted my officers’

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)– The number of violent crimes in Richmond is up by 62 compared to the first half of 2020, when 364 violent crimes were investigated. As of June 9, 426 violent crimes have occurred so far in 2021, according to Richmond police data.

Police Chief Gerald Smith held a news conference Monday morning where he gave an update on crime in the city as tension boils over first responder pay and staffing.

A new billboard went up over the weekend. This time, it’s directly across the street from RPD Headquarters on Grace street, and states “Are Richmonders getting the most qualified police officers? Not with the lowest paid force in central VA!”

About two weeks ago, another billboard appeared near the Arthur Ashe Boulevard exit from I-95S and I-64E, stating “the safety of the city is in jeopardy” and that “public safety is in a crisis due to poor pay and staffing.”

Chief Smith said the billboards are spreading an inaccurate message that Richmond is not a safe place to live and work.

The Richmond Coalition of Police (RCOP) put both billboards up. In a statement Monday afternoon, the president, Brendan Leavy, said the billboard is meant to bring awareness– not to attack Chief Smith.

“We want to be clear that we are not blaming the Police Chief for a situation that he inherited. We are saying that the issues raised with officers leaving and the experience pouring out of the city has impacted the rank and file of the Police Department,” the statement read. Leavy is a detective with Richmond police and said the union represents a majority of Richmond Police officers.

However, Chief Smith is not taking the signs lightly. “When you put that on the highway, you’re telling people, basically, the city’s unsafe. Messaging like the new one outside of police headquarters prompted the earlier-than-planned presentation of crime trends in Richmond Monday morning.

“It brings in to question the quality of the police officers working here at the Richmond Police Department,” Smith said. “I mean, I think they just insulted my officers. They are qualified, highly qualified professionals and they also have a city and a city council that is taking the time out to get their compensation to where it should be.”

Richmond City Council recently rejected a $4 million RCOP pay plan but still agreed to an increase in the upcoming budget. The city will also pay for a study to examine how much city first responders should get paid. However, the new billboard shows that RCOP is not satisfied.

“The citizens aren’t aware of the starting salaries of public safety departments in the Metro Richmond area. The citizens need to know what the current state of affairs are and it’s obvious with the pay differential,” Leavy said.

In the past, the city has taken over a year to complete a pay study. RCOP has expressed its concerns to the city that time is of the essence. The city does not move fast when it comes to addressing pay for public safety and that needs to change,” he wrote.

Chief Smith pushed back against the idea that Richmond is unsafe. According to data provided by the Richmond Police Department, the number of violent crimes so far in 2021 is up compared to this same time in 2020. However, the number of violent crimes is down compared compared to the first half of 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016.

“We are looking at young people who are actually doing these crimes as well as being victims of it. So the pattern is starting to present itself to us so we know where to go, what efforts to do, and who to address,” Smith told reporters Monday.

He blamed the violent crime increase on three factors: guns being in the wrong hands, pandemic stress, and mistrust in police.

“We have to get trust back in to the police again so people can pick up the phone and give us a call,” Smith said.

Smith said his department is still working on efforts to reimagine public safety by creating the Office of Professional Accountability, updating its use-of-force policy, encouraging and rewarding effective de-escalation, and re-evaluating training practices. The department also participates in “command staff walks” through neighborhoods to connect with residents. 

The chief admitted the department, like many he said, is understaffed. 82 police officers have separated from the Richmond Police Department between April 2020 and April 2021, according to a spokesperson. 51 officers resigned during that time–a year full of sustained pressure on the department in the wake of protest and riot after the death of George Floyd.

“If our staffing levels were higher, we would put that staffing toward those three things that we know are affecting violent crimes at this time,” he said.

“Officers are leaving the city to go to surrounding jurisdictions,” said Leavy, with RCOP. Officers that are leaving and where they are going is the great concern for RCOP members. More officers leaving is a problem. It is a crisis when you have so many experienced officers leaving the department at such an alarming rate. There is a mass exodus of experienced officers quitting,” the union president said.

Mayor Levar Stoney has previously said restructuring the pay plan, as proposed with a $4.4 million price tag, could not be accommodated during the 2021-2022 budget process.

“For this organization [RCOP] to spring a new pay plan during a pandemic, when the city is in a financial crisis doesn’t make a lot of sense. They could have been a little more strategic in their timing, we could have talked about this two years ago, it was never brought up,” the mayor said.

According to the data, the number of aggravated assaults is up compared to this time frame in 2020 but down compared to years prior. There have been 26 homicides so far this year compared to 21 in the same time frame last year.

The number of sexual assaults reported so far in 2021 is the lowest since the first half of 2017. The number of larcenies, burglaries, motor vehicle thefts, and property crimes are also all down compared to the first half of 2020.

This is a developing story. Stay with 8News for updates.

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