Public safety leaders seek peace – among themselves
on December 22, 2011
City Manager Bill Lindsay said late Wednesday he’ll order an investigation into who leaked information to the press and a councilmember about a non-criminal Sheriff’s stop involving an Office of Neighborhood Safety staff member.
The move is aimed in part at easing the concerns of ONS staff, who have complained publicly and privately about what they regard as a breach of trust in their relationship with Richmond police officials.
Lingering tension between personnel in the ONS and the Police Department threatened to delay or even derail the city’s participation in a nationally-recognized anti-violence initiative.
In a letter dated Dec. 4, Office of Neighborhood Safety staff raised a series of concerns, and proposed reforms aimed at improving their working relationship with RPD staff and officials. The letter suggested that at least one of the recommendations – an investigation into police conduct – was something closer to a demand, without which ONS would not participate in Operation Ceasefire, a multi-pronged anti-violence campaign the city hopes to roll out this year.
“As of yet, there has been no resolution to any of the issues (raised in the letter),” said Sam Vaughn, an ONS agent, on Tuesday. Vaughn said he authored the letter and that it speaks for him and his colleagues.
The two-page letter was addressed to “Ceasefire/Lifelines to Healing Partners,” a reference to the crime-reduction strategy that city officials hope to launch in 2012. The letter has circulated widely among social service providers and other nonprofit partners as well as within the upper levels of city government.
While intermittent tensions have flared between police and ONS leaders since the department was established in 2007, the rift broke open in the aftermath of an Oct. 14 fight at City Hall. In that incident, a brawl broke out between at least seven young men who were visiting a third-floor suite used by ONS officials. Those involved in the melee, which police say erupted between rival gang members who had come to collect paychecks for their participation in an ONS training program, were gone by the time police arrived.
In the aftermath, police officials complained privately and publicly that ONS agents were uncooperative. Police Chief Chris Magnus issued a letter days later apologizing in part for statements made by those in his department, calling it “unnecessarily provocative” and “unprofessional.”
A few days after the fight, area media outlets and the office of Councilmember Corky Booze received information about a patrol stop in North Richmond involving a female ONS agent. Although no crime was alleged, the subsequent reports suggested that the agent was involved in a sexual tryst in the vehicle with a young man from the area.
On Tuesday, the two sides seemed at loggerheads. Vaughn and ONS Director DeVone Boggan both said that an investigation into who leaked information about the patrol stop was a minimum requirement. But Magnus said he didn’t want to “bog down” continuing efforts to move forward and make Ceasefire operational with further investigation into the leak.
“I understand they are frustrated, and I share that frustration, but this was a report taken by another agency,” Magnus said. “Realistically, there is no way we are going to be able to find out who (leaked the information) … it is unrealistic to think we are going to achieve anything productive by pursuing that matter any further.”
Magnus also addressed the personnel recommendations in the letter. Vaughn and his ONS colleagues called for Lt. Arnold Threets to be returned to his role as ONS liaison – Threets was reassigned this year and replaced with Sgt. Chuck Whitney – and for Capt. Mark Gagan to replace Capt. Anthony Williams as the Police Department’s lead in the Ceasefire program.
“That’s not going to happen,” Magnus said. “I think the appropriate people are assigned.”
Booze, speaking at a local restaurant Wednesday night, said he wants to see an investigation into ONS performance and protocols.
But late Wednesday night City Manager Bill Lindsay, to whom both Boggan and Magnus directly report, said he had considered the matter and sought a solution with both parties.
“There will be an investigation into (the leak), and we’ll run it out of my office,” Lindsay said. Lindsay added that he would release more details about the investigation in the coming weeks.
Lindsay declined to comment on the ONS request that Williams and Whitney be swapped out for Gagan and Threets. Lindsay said Ceasefire and violence reduction strategies in general were paramount and that he sought a swift resolution to minimize distractions.
Lindsay’s decision could bode well for Ceasefire, which has meetings scheduled for Jan. 31 and Feb. 1.
Ceasefire, which gained acclaim in Chicago in the 1990s, is an interdisciplinary approach to crime abatement involving identification of potential criminal groups, contact, intervention and incentives – and potential law enforcement consequences – to steer at-risk groups from crime.
ONS was launched in 2007, and is in some ways an operational outgrowth of the Ceasefire philosophy. The city department includes a small staff of community outreach specialists who use community connections and trust to work in high-crime communities, often springing into action to tamp down retaliation after gang-related shootings.
Critics have charged that ONS is wasteful and ineffective, and that agents lack specialized skills to achieve results.
Both ONS and the future of Ceasefire in Richmond are at something of a crossroads, as critics have been emboldened by the unrest between police and ONS and the uptick in deadly crime this year. This year, the city has suffered 27 official homicides, a number that does not include two men shot and killed in self-defense during a drug dispute and five more men slain in unincorporated North Richmond. There were 21 homicides in Richmond in 2010.
Boggan said Tuesday that although he did not write the letter, he shared his staff’s concerns, and he considered a probe into who leaked information about his employee to the press and a member of the City Council to be necessary.
“Everyone agrees it was malicious, deliberate and hurtful, and that the only issue is who did it and how can we ensure it doesn’t happen again,” Boggan said. “For the safety of my staff and the community we can’t have people targeted like this.”
Vaughn, 35, has emerged as an outspoken leader within ONS staff.
“We are all committed to making Richmond a safer city and free of gun violence,” Vaughn said. “This letter was strictly devised to make the individuals safe and comfortable with the process (of Ceasefire). This was our way of letting the group know what would make us feel comfortable moving forward.”
While there has been speculation in the past that Boggan and Magnus have a frayed relationship, both men rejected that notion Tuesday and said they can work together. Both also said it was important for leaders of public safety agencies in a city with a long history of street violence to be able to work together.
“We have a collegial relationship,” Boggan said. “We have the same goals, but some different methods, so we have tensions, but they’re healthy and normal.”
Magnus said: “I think we have a good relationship. Our departments work very differently, and that inevitably creates some challenges, but I respect what he is trying to do and I know ONS is vital going forward.”
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