Richmond councilman: ‘We’ve already defunded the police department’

Richmond Progressive Alliance-led council votes to defund RPD by $3M
File photo of Richmond Police Department headquarters.

Just over five years ago, the Richmond Police Department was garnering widespread recognition for years of steady crime reduction with a focus on community policing, a strategy that encourages officers to be involved in the neighborhoods they monitor and to build bonds with residents.

Since then, however, deep cuts to RPD’s budget have made maintaining that level of community involvement difficult. Reduced staffing has posed a challenge to RPD’s abilities to sustain those crime-reduction strategies, and they come amid local and national calls to reduce funding for police in order to redirect that money to alternative city services.

“Individuals will yell out, ‘Defund the police department,’ Councilmember Nat Bates said. “We’ve already defunded the police department.”

Over the past 10 years, the police department has been reduced from 301 employees to the current 217, Richmond police Chief Bisa French reported in a presentation to City Council Tuesday. The chief and three captains delivered the report as part of a task force launched by City Council on July 1 that aims to re-envision the city’s policing model by July 2021.

In 2011, RPD’s patrol division had 82 patrol officers and 13 sergeants, they reported. This year, it’s down to 54 patrol officers and 9 sergeants.

Between years 2011 and 2018, on average RPD had 54 staffers in its investigations bureau, which probes a wide range of crimes including homicides, robberies, assaults and property crimes. Currently, that staff is down to 36. The number of detectives investigating homicides, attempted homicides, shootings and cold cases is down to 5 from 9. The reduced staff has meant a reduction in time spent on cold cases and following up with families of victims, Richmond police Capt. Timothy Simmons said.

Meanwhile, the number of communications dispatchers is currently down to 12 from as many as 21.

Reductions have impacted police surveillance capability. Historically, RPD had retired officers monitoring CCTV cameras trained on crime hot spots, in part to enforce and prevent illegal dumping. Due to retirement benefit issues, they could not longer be used for the job. While RPD was in the process of hiring civilian employees to do the work, the city’s structurally imbalanced budget caused a suspension of the real-time monitoring program.

Also suspended was a 34-year police program at Stege Elementary that worked to strengthen bonds between police and youth.

To help balance the city’s 2020-2021 fiscal year budget, 34 RPD positions were frozen last month. In the last five years, RPD has lost staff to other law enforcement agencies, Chief French said.

“These incremental reductions created a situation in which staff were forced to work mandatory overtime just to meet minimum staffing requirements, so that when the community call 911, there was a person to answer the phones, and officers to respond to the calls for service,” Chief French said. “This mandatory overtime caused fatigue, added stress to our staff and their families and contributed to low morale issues within the department.”

RPD recently underwent a reorganization to address the staffing issues while reducing overtime and prioritizing city patrols. That included restructuring management, suspending programs and reducing staff in its investigations bureau.

Moving forward, Chief French said the department is researching strategies to maintain RPD’s community policing model despite the staff reductions. The police department was already in line with many of the 8 Can’t Wait policies demanded of departments nationally in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, Chief French said. Additional language has been added to department policies to further achieve 8 Can’t Wait recommendations.

“We don’t want to lose the momentum we’ve built over the years in our community policing efforts,” Chief French said. “So we’re talking about how we remain engaged with our community in non-enforcement capacities, because that’s where we were able to build our relationships and partnerships.”

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, who volunteered to join the task force aiming to re-envision police services alongside Richmond Councilmember Eduardo Martinez, said a town hall is being planned for mid-to-late August to further a community dialogue on the issue.