New study shows disparity in number of city police encounters with African-Americans

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 3/1/2019, 6 a.m. | Updated on 3/9/2019, 2:54 p.m.
African-Americans in Richmond are involved in nearly two out of three civilian encounters with police officers, with lopsided contacts when ...

African-Americans in Richmond are involved in nearly two out of three civilian encounters with police officers, with lopsided contacts when police are checking out suspicious persons or activities, a new study finds.

The study, based on 27,432 field interview reports, or FIRs, that Richmond Police officers submitted between Jan. 1 and Oct. 1, 2018, found that African-Americans comprise 65 percent of those who had contacts with police officers.

The study was produced by a new coalition called the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project, an umbrella group started in 2016 that includes the New Virginia Majority, the Legal Aid Justice Center and Southerners on New Ground, as well as Dr. Liz Coston, a Virginia Commonwealth University sociology instructor involved in preparing the study.

The study found officers recorded 17,808 encounters with African-Americans during the period, or more than twice the 7,942 contacts with white individuals, the second largest group.

According to the study, the racial disparity was more evident when the contacts were broken down by category. For example, African-Americans were listed in 71 percent of the field reports involving suspicious persons and 66 percent of field reports involving suspicious activities.

The study also found the field reports overrepresented African-Americans in contacts involving teen curfew violations (98 percent), driving without a valid license, (86 percent), gang activity (79.6 percent), trespassing (78 percent) and disorderly conduct (76 percent).

Interim Police Chief William C. Smith, who released the field reports in mid-January, has not responded to a Free Press request for comment on the findings.

Dr. Coston said field reports provide the first inside look at Richmond Police activity. However, the reports, she said, leave an unanswered question: “Whether police are doing their jobs or whether they are using the letter of the law to disproportionately stop and/or surveil particular groups.

“Given some of the vast disparities that were found, this is an important question,” she said.

The study noted the field reports recorded 8,700 encounters involving suspicious persons, suspicious activities or suspicious vehicles, although Dr. Coston noted that the data did not include any information on how many different individuals were involved.

Of the 4,605 encounters involving suspicious persons, 3,271 or 71 percent involved officer interactions with African-Americans.

The field reports also show that African-Americans were encountered 2,346 times in field reports on suspicious activities, representing two out of three of the 3,539 encounters included in the field reports.

In the nebulous category of “other activities,” officers reported 3,612 encounters with African-Americans, or 67 percent of the 5,406 field reports.

Another red flag the study found involved a special category documenting police encounters with individuals in the Broad Street corridor in Downtown — 80 percent of the 45 field interview reports involved police contacts with African-Americans.

The Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project coalition spent two years lobbying City Hall and former Police Chief Alfred Durham for release of the information on police contacts with the public, including leading a protest last August outside City Hall.

Before leaving his post in December, Chief Durham, with support from Mayor Levar M. Stoney, agreed to release the field reports and dropped a previous request that the transparency project pay for the cost of generating this first-of-its-kind look at police work.

Chief Smith released the field report data on Jan. 18. In a letter accompanying the data, he wrote, “Field interview cards are completed at the officer’s discretion based on the nature of the interaction with the individual and are not necessarily indicative of criminal activity. … Please note that officers may have completed field interview cards on the same person multiple times.”

Despite the shortcomings, Jasmine Leeward, a spokeswoman for the New Virginia Majority, called the release of the field reports “a huge victory considering the black box around law enforcement activity across the country that keeps the public in the dark on who is policed and what that policing looks like.”