Talk about policing dominated the Richmond City Council meeting on Tuesday, as councilmembers and citizens discussed amending the Richmond Police Commission enabling ordinance, initiating a police commission investigation into the death of Richard “Pedie” Perez following a settlement between the city and Perez’ family earlier that day, and investigating all cases in which individuals are seriously injured by Richmond police.
At the meeting’s beginning, Richmond Mayor Tom Butt proposed moving these three agenda items to a future meeting, based on advice from City Attorney Bruce Goodmiller, who wanted to discuss the language used on the items with the attorney for the Richmond Police Officers Association (RPOA). Almost immediately, councilmember Jovanka Beckles motioned to override this proposal. “I want to keep this on the agenda, for us to discuss it,” said Beckles, her comment was met by cheers and applause from the audience. “I think that our community has waited a long time for us to address this issue.”
Vice Mayor Eduardo Martinez seconded Beckles’ overturn, as did councilmember Gayle McLaughlin. “I think it’s in the interest of transparency,” said McLaughlin, “and plus, I want to get this moving, this conversation moving.” She pointed out that ordinances, which take a first and second reading and then an additional 30 days before going into effect, would take time, as would opening an investigation.
Councilmembers Nathaniel Bates and Vinay Pimplé supported the mayor’s proposal, citing the need to consult first with the Richmond Police Officers’ Association (RPOA). But ultimately, the other four councilmembers overruled them, and all three items remained on the agenda.
The first item, proposed by Butt and councilmember Jael Myrick, was a suggestion to amend the city’s police commission enabling ordinance. Previously, Butt had put forward to the police commission six items to be voted upon regarding the roles and responsibilities of the commission. The commission approved five of these items, which were now up for approval by the city council.
Some of these changes included extending the time that an individual can submit a claim against a police officer from 45 days to 120 days, changing the name of the Police Commission to the Citizens Police Review Committee, and ensuring that each complaint was forwarded to the chief of police and each member of the police commission. The one item that was not passed by the Police Commission to the council for approval was a proposal to automatically initiate an investigation whenever there is an officer-involved shooting that leads to a fatality.
Benjamin Therriault, the newly-elected president of the RPOA, stepped up to the podium during public comments to say that the union is generally supportive of the police commission and the proposed amendments. “The only issue that we have, and that kind of ties into the letter that was sent to the city, is just a process. As a bargaining unit, as a labor organization, concerns about the government code and the working conditions that could result as changes are made, that is what concerns me,” he said.
He agreed to councilmember Bates’ request to sit down and discuss his concerns about the ordinance with councilmembers, but did not immediately respond to Martinez’s queries about the specific working conditions he was referring to.
The council passed the agenda item—with Bates abstaining and Pimplé voting against this—meaning that all five of the points that had been already approved by the police commission were passed. The council will return to the last point that had not passedafter further discussion with the police commission.
The second item, to initiate a police investigation into the death of “Pedie” Perez, sparked a heated debate.
Perez, 24, was shot and killed by Richmond Police Officer Wallace Jensen outside Uncle Sam’s Liquors in September 2014. Jensen has said that Perez was reaching for his gun during a scuffle, but Perez’s family insists that he was cooperating with the officer and did not pose any threat that required deadly force. Since the incident, the Perez family and other supporters have vigilantly pushed the city to take up an independent investigation of his death.
Earlier on Tuesday, the mayor’s office announced a settlement agreement between the Perez family and Jensen’s legal team. After Perez’s death, his parents filed a civil rights lawsuit against Jensen claiming that his use of deadly force against their son was unreasonable. The statement made by the mayor’s office says that the settlement of $850,000 is meant to provide a sense of comfort and closure to the Perez family and to avoid further costs of litigation, but does not represent an admission of liability from the city or Jensen.
In an emailed statement, Richmond Police Captain Mark Gagan said, “While I do not believe the Perez family cares much about the money, I hope the settlement begins to give them closure. “
Members of the Perez family who spoke at last night’s meeting did not mention the settlement, but continued to advocate for an ongoing investigation. Rhonda Perez, Pedie’s aunt, said an investigation was necessary to address a “broken system.”
The investigation to be conducted by the Police Commission would determine if Jensen had used excessive or unnecessary force. If approved, the investigation would still need to wait until the position of Police Commission Investigative Officer has been filled.
The discussion led to a series of back-and-forths between council members—in particular, Martinez—and city attorney Goodmiller, who recommended it not pass. Goodmiller’s biggest concern was the problems presented by conducting the investigation through a police commission. “It’s just fraught with all kinds of procedural problems,” said Goodmiller, when Myrick asked why they shouldn’t initiate a police commission investigation.
“I’m not buying it,” said Myrick.
Beckles said that while they had proposed a police commission review because it seemed appropriate, they could also find other avenues for the investigation to take place. “The point is, we want an investigation,” said Beckles, to applause from the audience.
During public comments on this item, Pedie Perez’s father, Rick Perez, thanked the councilmembers for their discussion, and said, “I don’t understand this protecting the cops. We’ve seen [investigations] happen in Chicago, they’re getting officers for things that happened 15 months ago. I hope this investigation happens.”
“I really think it’s a step in the right direction, though it’s not like having my son back,” Perez added.
The motion passed, with Pimplé and Butt voting against, and Bates abstaining. Once the city has hired an investigative officer, the police commission will investigate the case.
The last of the police-related items on the agenda proposed that after an individual is seriously injured by police action, an investigation should automatically be opened. Beckles pointed out that oftentimes after a traumatic experience, family members are not in an emotional state to file a police report within the allotted time individuals have to file a complaint regarding misconduct. Myrick asked for clarification about what would constitute “serious injury,” and city manager Bill Lindsay suggested they meet before the next session to clarify the definition.
Butt called this item “crazy.” “I’m pretty troubled—all of this is sending a message to our police department that we don’t trust you,” said Butt. He also expressed the concern that it could create an undue burden on the police force, because, he said, there could be quite a lot of injuries. He presented an example of someone stealing his cell phone and a police officer tackling the thief, injuring the person and causing the opening of an investigation. “How many police officers do you think are going to think twice before they take off after somebody who’s breaking the law?” Butt asked.
He called the proposal a “knee-jerk reaction to something that needs to be looked at,” and said, “I think the bottom line is we’re going to less safe because of it.” He also brought up concerns about potentially high financial costs of introducing such a review process.
Other councilmembers rebuffed his concerns. Myrick said that, while he believes Richmond has the best police force in the country, “Nobody’s perfect. Trust is one of those things, especially when you’re talking about groups, not individuals, but organizations—when you’re a government, you’re not supposed to trust people.”
Martinez highlighted the difference between transparency and distrust, saying, “We want a relationship that is mutual and open and transparent” with the police department.
Beckles agreed, calling the mayor’s cell phone example “ridiculous.” “That’s not what we’re talking about,” said Beckles. She spoke of Freddie Gray, who died of a spinal cord injury on April 12, 2015, while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department.
The last item, presented at about 11:00 p.m., as most of the audience was shuffling out, was to hear an update on the efforts of the U.S. Department of Housing (HUD) and major banks to prioritize housing loans non-profits rather than speculators. This is part of an effort to provide more affordable housing options to Richmond residents, as well to prevent foreclosures in the city of Richmond. The item passed unanimously.