A Richmond councilmember who voted to defund the City of Richmond’s already-depleted police department last summer is chastising veteran officers who decide not to postpone their retirements to help solve imminent challenges to police staffing and recruitment.
“I was hoping to hear that the [officers’] dedication extended further than retirement,” said Councilmember Eduardo Martinez, a member of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and candidate for mayor in November 2022. Martinez added, “I want to thank the officers who have extended their service beyond retirement age.”
The remarks followed a presentation at Tuesday’s council meeting on the challenges the RPD faces in meeting the demand for public safety services following a 26 percent reduction in sworn officers since 2014, which is the year the RPA took control of three of the seven seats on city council. The RPA which has staunchly supported the national defund police movement gained a council majority in the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Amid the RPA’s dominance of Richmond politics, the RPD has seen its number of budgeted sworn officers dwindle from 196 to 145, posing significant staffing challenges to a police department once recognized as a national model of community policing by members of the Obama Administration.
Compounding the problem is the ongoing struggle to recruit new officers as dozens of veteran cops become eligible for retirement. In 2019, the RPD received 245 applications from prospective officers. In 2020, the number of applications plummeted to 86 and last year it was down to 81, Tirona said.
When asked why they decide against joining the RPD, applicants have cited better compensation and benefits packages at other law enforcement agencies, the perception that there is a lack of support for police officers from city leadership and a lack of respect for police work, and the expectation of being laid off in the next contract, Tirona said.
Tirona said there is also a national trend of reduced interest in law enforcement as a career.
“I believe policing is a noble profession and a very necessary one,” the acting chief said. “We need to adapt with changing conditions, but I still believe that when an officer puts on this badge and swears the oath, that they are committing themselves to something of a greater purpose.”
In response to current challenges, Tirona announced a realignment of police operations. Effective Jan. 30, the RPD plans to reduce staff on its investigations team from 32 to 23, reassign investigators to its patrol team, eliminate its regulatory unit and transfer those services into the code enforcement unit, and combine the robbery and property units into a single unit, called the general crimes unit, among other changes, he said.
Amplifying RPD’s patrol team will “provide the greatest level of direct service to the community” and reduce the need for officers to work overtime to fill gaps in coverage, Tirona said. The changes will mean increased expectation on patrol officers to conduct comprehensive investigations in the field, he added.
“We have always enjoyed a strong investigative staff, and that has to be modified for this year,” Tirona said. “There’s only so many people and I can divide them into so many different areas.”
But the challenges to staffing and recruitment will likely continue unless the city can market Richmond “as an attractive community for police candidates,” the acting chief said.
That may be difficult to accomplish under RPA leadership. In fact, one RPA member on the city council called to further defund the police department. In addition to Councilmember Martinez’s suggestion that veteran officers postpone their retirements, Gayle Mclaughlin, also an RPA member on the city council, suggested shifting additional funds away from the RPD to support other services. She says funds for police positions that haven’t been filled should be redirected to other services.
“The whole trend nationally is to look at public safety in a whole new way,” Mclaughlin said.
In June 2021, the RPA-led council shifted $3 million away from the RPD to support services such as the YouthWORKS employment program, Office of Neighborhood Safety, those geared at homelessness and toward community crisis response. The cuts were justified as part of a national trend toward defunding police, particularly in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. But the wake-up call for police reform arose at a time when the Richmond Police Department was being heralded as among the nation’s best.
Under former police Chief Chris Magnus, who now heads the U.S. Customs and Border Protection under President Biden, a better-resourced RPD gained recognition as a national model for community policing, a strategy that emphasized bond-forming between officers and residents.
In 2015, Barry Kinsberg, a senior fellow at the UC Berkeley law school, was quoted as saying, “If you were looking for what police ought to do, I would send you to Richmond.”
Loretta Lynch, former President Obama’s attorney general, visited the city to highlight its community policing strategies, saying, “you are showing how developing positive relationships between law enforcement officers and the residents, businesses, schools, faith organizations and community groups in their jurisdiction can create benefits for the entire community.”
Correction: The story has been updated to correct the election years in which the RPA won a council majority.