by James A. Bacon
Earlier this month City of Richmond police officer Mark Sims got into an argument with three men man at the Whitcomb Court public housing development. One individual said he was bringing diapers for his children who lived there. Sims referenced guns stored in the visitor’s parked car. The man said he had a right to possess the guns. Brian Swann, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s director of safety, got involved in the exchange, and someone began videotaping the encounter.
Sims told the visitor to stand in a particular area, and the man objected. The policeman told him he was barred from the property for “obstruction.”
“He can’t put me in no cuffs, because he knows he’s wrong,” the man said shortly afterward, according to an account in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
“I don’t want to put you in cuffs because you ain’t worth it. You’re zero. You ain’t worth it, that’s pretty much it,” Sims said.
The details aren’t entirely clear, but someone apparently took umbrage at the behavior of the police. The Richmond Police Department has confirmed that a person at the scene was arrested for an “outstanding warrant,” but also that the incident is the subject of an internal affairs investigation. The video also was shared with the board of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA).
Welcome to policing in the post-George Floyd era.
Richmond’s public housing projects are crime magnets. Thefts, assaults, and shootings are commonplace. According to the Richmond Police crime incident information center, there have been four homicides, seven robberies, 51 assaults, two burglaries, 37 thefts, 13 vehicle thefts, and 282 other incidents at Whitcomb Court so far this year. That’s in a community with 447 housing units.
RHHA has developed crime-prevention tools such as a no-trespassing list, which, as I understand it, relies upon the city police to enforce. Since the late 1990s, some 10,000 names were added to the list. The large number became “unmanageable and ineffective,” according to the RHHA, effectively giving license to Richmond Police stop and search almost anyone on sight. Last month the RHHA changed its policy to include shorter bans, reducing the no-trespass list to 250 names.
Some say the reforms did not go far enough. The revised policy, in the RTD’s words, “still leaves open the door for harassment of people who pose no threat to public safety in public housing.”
In a board meeting last night, several board members expressed “shock and outrage” at the event, and voted to remove the three men from the no-trespass list. “I believe the policy was abused in its use, and staff and the police department was incorrect in making this decision [to bar them],” said Commissioner Barrett Hardiman.
“The lives of these three men were put in jeopardy based on the way the police department was contacted from what I’ve heard talking to the young men personally,” Hardiman said. “This is not OK. This is exactly the kind of thing that I said we need to make sure is not happening.”
Swann, the RRHA safety director, said board members were making decisions on the basis of incomplete information, including what happened before and after the video. Also, the RRHA’s general counsel told the board that it lacked the authority to remove the names, an action that requires an administrative review.
Bacon’s bottom line: Let’s summarize this story, as best as I can reconstruct it. Three men, including one with guns in his car, visit Whitcomb Court. The safety director sees something that raises a concern and calls the police. The visitors are uncooperative. One is arrested on an outstanding warrant. The RHHA adds the three men to its no-trespassing list. Someone shows a videotape of the encounter it to RHHA board members, and they, arguably based upon incomplete information, vote to remove the three men from the no-trespassing list.
This abbreviated account leaves out a lot, so it’s easy to read into the incident what you want. Here is my provisional take, subject to finding out more details.
People who are not in the act of committing a crime have rights. I get that. At the same time, the RHHA board has a responsibility to keep its public housing projects safe for residents. Police can be proactive in protecting residents, or they can be reactive. Incidents like this — and by “incident,” I am referring to the videotaping of the encounter, the sharing of that videotape, and the decision made on the basis of incomplete information by the board to side with the visitors — discourages proactive policing. Why would any officer want to subject himself to an internal RPD investigation?
If this incident reflects a broader change in attitudes, as I suspect it does, it’s a safe bet that policing of in Richmond’s public housing projects will become more passive and more reactive, and that criminality will increase. Shocked and outraged by the way police deal with suspicious behavior, do-gooders will pat themselves on their backs for protecting the rights of minorities. Should the number of homicides, assaults and robberies increase as a result — the victims of which are minorities also, by the way — you can be sure the do-gooders will feel no responsibility.