Community voices and public safety reform, by Reginald E. Gordon and Chief Gerald M. Smith

4/8/2021, 6 p.m.
Last year was a year that shook the city of Richmond and the nation — from the devastation and heartache ...

Last year was a year that shook the city of Richmond and the nation — from the devastation and heartache of the COVID-19 pandemic to the protests in response to long-standing racial inequities and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The visceral reactions left many of us re-examining the sanctity of a Black life, with magnification on the institutions we all wanted to believe were set in place to serve and protect us all. Against a backdrop of boarded up businesses and dismantled monuments, we all knew that we had to find a constructive path forward.

Last summer, Mayor Levar M. Stoney organized the Task Force on Reimagining Public Safety. Knowing action needed to be timely and informed by data, the mayor took a slightly different approach to the formation of this task force. He knew this important work could not occur in silos, but would instead need collaboration and compromise to be successful. Thus, he joined hand in hand with members of the Richmond community and members of his administration to ensure cross-collaboration, information sharing and timely communication.

The 60-member task force brought together community members, social justice advocates, academics, legal experts, health professionals, law enforcement, human services professionals, social services and emergency communication professionals as a first step in devising an intentional, equity-driven plan to make Richmond a truly safer place for all its residents.

During the course of 90 days, the task force had many difficult and, at times, uncomfortable conversations. From sharing stories of trauma, to examples of systemic racism, to debating steps for meaningful community healing, the task force took on the weight of a heavy task. But, this group never buckled under that weight. They learned from one another, forged new partnerships and bridged gaps.

The task force was an affirming experience for Human Services, which includes the city Office of Community Wealth Building, the Department of Social Services, the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs and Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities. We learned during community conversations that many people wanted increased access to services and programs with the potential to improve the quality of life in their household and respective neighborhoods.

As we work on reimagining public safety — on expanding who and what helps our community stay safe — we consistently refer to the task force’s conversations and final report to guide our decision-making.

As shared during the March 23 meeting of Richmond City Council’s Public Safety Committee, 27 of the 31 recommendations are considered “in progress or under evaluation,” including:

• A Community Training Academy to ensure residents are at the table when police recruits are going through the academy;

• A partnership with Capital One and Leadership Metro Richmond to create a 24/7 human services system;

• A proposed budget for a “Community Safety Coordinator” to work with community members and partners on items related to public safety, such as gun violence prevention; and,

• An Office of Professional Accountability to address concerns impacting the Richmond Police Department and business cards for officers to give to residents to better connect and improve communication between the community and the department.

Reimagining public safety will not happen overnight, but we are proud of the direction that our city is going. Of course we still have challenges – from gun violence, to training needs, to high volume in calls for service — but we are taking active steps to mitigate these issues, using the task force’s report and engagement as a guide.

In order to create a truly equitable and inclusive city, we must offer residents a seat at the table to listen, engage in difficult conversations and find compromise. We look forward to continuing to working together with our community to reimagine public safety.

Mr. Gordon is the deputy chief administrative officer for human services for the City of Richmond.

Chief Smith leads the Richmond Police Department.