Richmond’s City Council unlikely to pass ban on police use of non-lethal weapons

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A Richmond City Council subcommittee voted against banning the use of non-lethal weapons on protestors Tuesday afternoon. This means things like rubber bullets and tear gas can still be used as a crowd control tactic.

This ban was proposed by Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch and Councilman Mike Jones in June, when dozens, sometimes hundreds, of protestors stood face to face with Richmond police. The unrest lasted months. At times, non-lethal weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets were used to disperse the crowds.

Supporters of the ban call those measures “excessive” and “violent.” Opponents say without them, police aren’t left with any effective alternatives to disperse crowds.

Now, unless Lynch and Jones can gather more support, the proposal is dead. Five councilmembers need to request to hear the proposal at next month’s council meeting.

When the ban was first proposed, the new Richmond Police Department’s new chief, Gerald Smith, admitted his officers lacked training.

“Since last time we talked, we made some changes here,” Smith said at the virtual public safety sub-committee meeting on Tuesday. 

In June, instead of outright banning the specific uses of force, Smith asked the committee to give him time to construct a new policy. He outlined the first draft of that policy Tuesday.

The first change is before officers use tear gas and rubber bullets, they would need approval from the chief himself or someone he delegates. He said the measure could be used “when reasonably necessary and proportionate to the existing threat and action of level itself.”

The chief also wants a minimum of three dispersals orders to be given and says a “reasonable” amount of time will be given for anyone who would like to leave. Under the policy, agents will only be used to disperse people showing aggression and “will not be used on non-aggressive and non-violent crowds at all.”

In addition, Smith said these methods won’t be used on any members of “vulnerable populations” which include pregnant women, children, or frail or weak individuals.

Smith said after agents are used, RPD will try to make sure people can get “decontaminated,” which means providing water and having an ambulance on standby. Smith also wants to increase training on the Crisis Management Team so members of CMT would be EMTS too.

In response to questions about tear gas and it being banned in war, Smith said CS Gas was banned in war in 1997, however, that’s because it was inhumane to gas someone then shoot to kill them. He said it’s not unethical to use in crowd control because they’re not trying to kill anyone.

“It is just used to disperse crowds effectively,” Smith said.

This proposed policy is not final, and Smith said he will ask an external advisory committee for their opinions and recommendations.

After Smith presented the policy as it stands now, neither Kim Gray nor Reva Trammel opted to ask the chief any questions about it. Councilman Chris Hilbert was not at the meeting.

Gray said she is voting to strike the proposal because there is no absolute solution to “what we’ve been experiencing.”

“I do not support an absolute ban on non-lethal forces,” Gray said. “It removes the option of non-lethal force and you immediately get to lethal force if there’s nothing on the table.”

Gray said she hasn’t heard of any alternatives being suggested.

“It’s just a suggestion to ban what we currently have,” she added.

A handful of people at the meeting, including former law enforcement officers spoke up against the proposal.

“If we take away less lethal devices, what do you prefer the police use,” said Mike Dickinson, a city council candidate, during the public comment section against the proposal. “I look at what as gone on in the city in the last four months.. we have to give the police the tools.”

However, despite the chief’s efforts, Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch is still pushing for the ban. “It’s not like pregnant women and sick people wear a t-shirt to identify themselves,” she told 8News on Wednesday.

Lynch said there are alternatives to the nonlethal weapons police are using. “I can tell you there are a number of different measures that other countries and other states use, [from] sticky liquids, to odorous liquids and gasses. Things that have been proven not to cause long lasting harm and side effects, as tear gas, flash bangs, and rubber bullets have been known to cause,” she said.

“I think we need to send a message to our residents that this is a practice that we are no longer going to engage in,” Lynch said. “If these are being used at night, how would you determine whether someone is sick or pregnant in a large crowd?” 

Around the same time the proposal was introduced in June, five VCU doctors wrote to the council, begging them to stop using teargas. On Tuesday, Lynch and Jones reminded the council of that.

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