Now It’s Time to Get It Right

Former Police Chief Gerald Smith

by Jon Baliles

We can all take some comfort in the fact that Police Chief Gerald Smith has resigned, not because there is comfort in someone else’s downfall, but rather it gives the city a chance to start over with new leadership in public safety and repair the damage that has been done. Smith did not have the confidence of the officers under his command; he did not build on the foundation other chiefs before him had built; he did not seem to listen to his officers or the community; he seemed not to worry about anything other than pleasing his boss (the mayor); and, he perpetuated a lie about an alleged mass shooting and stayed with it beyond all evidence to the contrary.

It’s time to move on and do so in a hurry but with a process that is done right. The damage is done and crime is surging across the city (and the region) and we have vacancies in the police department that are not easy to fill and even harder when there is no confidence in leadership. So the trends we are seeing won’t improve right away, but at least we now have a chance to get it right.

We have seen this car wreck happening in slow motion — it began even before the summer of 2020. Mayor Levar Stoney had ignored the police department for most of his first term. He paid lip service to salaries and pay structure that became uncompetitive with surrounding locales, which was a repeat of what happened in the late 90’s and early 2000’s; he nudged a good, hard-working and well-liked police chief (Alfred Durham) into retirement; there was little concern shown for any workers in the public safety sector (Police, Fire, Emergency Communications, etc.).

When you aren’t treated well or feel as though you aren’t being listened to, you begin to look at retirement or opportunities in other localities just as any employee would, no matter where you work. If all you see is talk but no delivery from the boss, especially if you are putting your life on the line every day, you look for greener pastures. The officers weren’t asking for the moon, just decent working conditions, respect, and enough to provide for and grow their families. But even before 2020, the number of vacancies grew and crime started to rise. Is that a coincidence or correlated?

And then everyone remembers that the summer of 2020 descended into chaos — people marched, riots broke out, protesters were gassed, and the mayor did little to address the issue. He zigged and zagged back and forth between keeping order, marching with the protestors, and firing and hiring police chiefs. He went through three police chiefs in 11 days, firing William Smith, installing interim chief Jody Blackwell, and then hiring Gerald Smith on July 1, 2020.

The point is, it took until the budget deliberations last spring when action was taken and the mayor and council finally raised salaries for law enforcement officers. But by then, the force was already facing far more departures than arrivals. We have more than 150 vacancies (out of about 750 budgeted positions — i.e., about 20%) and recruitment classes are tiny compared to historical norms. If you field a sports team with 20% fewer players, you will lose.

The work environment that was slowly deteriorating turned into a freefall after Smith got here. Sure, a lot of that was due to what happened in the summer of 2020, when sentiment against law enforcement was at a fever pitch. But it made the bad even worse not just because of events but because of Smith’s style — or lack thereof. He would not talk to or listen to officers (even command staff) or their concerns; he showed no interest or desire for community policing or outreach; and he was so eager to impress his boss that he was willing to lie to the public about the July 4th alleged mass shooting, and to keep stonewalling and lying about it for months, even though all the evidence we have seen contradicted his claims.

Tyler Lane did the digging and found that Henrico Police have 62 vacancies (out of 694 funded officer positions) “…but a spokesperson said a majority of those vacancies are due to newly-established roles that were recently added to the force.” Chesterfield has 25 vacancies out of 558 budgeted sworn officers, but their new academy class is expected to narrow that gap significantly.

Richmond will not get better unless it is a safe city. And it’s not just about statistics, it’s about perception. If people feel unsafe or hear it’s unsafe, they will stay away. They won’t invest, they won’t open a business, they won’t visit.

I hate to sound like an old fart, but anyone who was around for the 1980’s and 1990’s knows it was a bad time in Richmond. We were synonymous with crime and violence and murders. We were the murder capital of the country in 1997 and almost always in the Top 5 during that decade. If I told someone where I was from, they were sorry for me because they knew how bad it was even though they had never visited. They knew us by reputation and it wasn’t good. There was no foodie scene, or craft beer craze, street art, or Potterfield Bridge, or Top 10 lists for cool things. Just bad ones.

But what changed was competent leadership that did something different — they made tough changes that brought real results. Community policing began in earnest and trust and transparency led to productive relationships between police and neighborhoods. The murder rate went down from 95 in 2004 to 32 by 2008. Neighborhoods saw new residents and reinvestment (and some gentrification). Downtown really began to thrive and grow organically on its own — not with a big, shiny project like a 6th Street Marketplace or new arena, but little changes. Block by block, little businesses and determined people brought incredible results.

Trust is a two way-street, whether it’s with a friend, spouse, politician or police department. If you don’t trust them they won’t trust you. It’s something that’s earned, it’s not just given to you because you think you deserve it or hold a certain position.

And of course, no one is perfect; I get that. No police department is without a few bad apples. No municipal government exists without some deadbeats. No school exists without bullies. But the large majority are working for good. Police try to keep people and communities safe. Government tries to pick up the trash and pave the streets; schools try to educate and nurture kids’ minds to be helpful and productive, not antagonistic. But it takes work and support, every day.

What is happening in Richmond is difficult to watch. All of the good that has happened in the last twenty years is unravelling and we seem to be accepting that fate by just paying lip service to it rather than doing something about it. And now is a big chance to make a real change and get it right.

Scoring political points for our “leaders” is sadly more important than finding solutions these days. Having and wielding power is more important than using it to right wrongs and fix the problems. Ignoring issues because they are inconvenient or can’t be solved in a tweet is a not a sign of action but weakness. Getting liked and followed on social media for what you post should never be considered more important than what you do, and certainly not pathetically mistaken for action.

Our “leaders” today are too quick to believe that their “likes” and fawning praise on social media are the same as doing the actual hard (and often boring) work required to effect change.

They would do well to remember instead what Arthur Ashe said: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

If Ashe had the tools of social media in his day, he would almost certainly have eschewed them all for blood, sweat and tears — and people would (and did) join and follow him as the courageous leader he was, who did the hard work because it was the right thing to do. Not because someone “liked” and clicked a thumbs up.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond City councilman. This column has been republished with permission from his blog RVA 5X5.

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