Last week, police in Richmond shot and killed an unarmed man who was charging at an officer. The incident has renewed calls for more transparency around policing.
Earlier this year, Richmond agreed to release monthly data on complaints against officers, as well as use of force by officers. But some community advocates are asking for more.
The push for more transparency began when Muhammad Assaddique Abdul-Rahman, a community organizer with New Virginia Majority, began knocking doors in Richmond’s southside.
He asked people: what are some of the biggest issues in your community?
“And so we narrowed it down and we started collecting stories of encounters with the police,” Abdul-Rahman says. “Like the lady who was forced to sit on the ground while she was ID’ed in front of her children in strollers.”
They started a petition to create a civilian review board for Richmond’s Police Department. Fairfax County created a board last year. But to convince local leaders, they needed more than anecdotes.
“So we needed the data on these complaints. Who was complaining? Where were they complaining? Where were they coming from?” says Abdul-Rahman.
That information can help get to the bottom of some big questions, says Liz Coston, a sociologist at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Is there racial bias that’s occurring in the Richmond Police Department? Are complaints more common among residents of particular racial backgrounds?”
In a move setting them apart from most police departments in the state, including Charlottesville and Roanoke, Richmond agreed to release detailed data on use of force by officers and complaints against officers.
In February they released all the data from 2017. Since then they’ve issued regular reports, posting the information online. They join Virginia Beach as one of the few localities that does.
According to Coston’s analysis of the 2017 data, when an officer uses force in Richmond more than three-quarters of the time it’s against an African-American. About half the city’s population is black. African-Americans are similarly over-represented in the complaint data.
Coston says that alone isn’t enough to judge whether the department is biased. To make that call she’d need to see similar data on traffic stops, and terry stops -- that’s when officers question people on the street.
“If we look across a number of different outcomes and see that all of them we see the same patterns in African American residents being searched more often, stopped more often, arrested more often, all of these outcomes are the same than we can say it’s a larger pattern of bias likely,” says Coston.
In an interview, Richmond’s Police Chief Alfred Durham says the department is working towards releasing more data, but that their IT systems aren’t sophisticated enough to retrieve and compile it. Durham cites resources as a limiting factor.
“Right now there are a lot of additional information based on traffic stops, race, and we were not capturing that in a lot of our reporting systems. That’s something we’re going to work on,” Durham says. “But like anything dealing with technology and the use of capturing data, there’s a price, there’s a cost to it.
Even without the data, Durham acknowledges that racial bias is a problem everywhere and that his department is no exception. Since 2015, all Richmond officers have done a day long training on fair and impartial policing.
“And I’m not going to sit here and sugar coat it. You know we all have our biases, you know, the way someone look. Their nationality, their race,” Durham says. “But one thing I tell my folk -- you check at that where you pay your rent. You don’t bring that to work.”
Still, community organizers say it would be easier to tell if that strategy is working if they could crunch the numbers.