The Richmond, Virginia police chief and other public officials have a big problem with a new billboard that’s been popping up around the city, though who is responsible for new advertising campaign appears to be as much of an issue as the message itself.
The Richmond Coalition of Police is comprised of about half of the city’s police force, and they’ve put up two billboards in the city objecting to the low pay for police officers, which they say is putting public safety at risk. The most recent advertisement went up in front of police headquarters this week, and proclaims that “The safety of the city is in jeopardy. Public safety is in a crisis due to poor pay and staffing.”
Sadly, the city’s police chief, who was hired by the city about a year ago, is siding with the mayor and city council instead of the rank-and-file officers.
“They also put up that billboard up that brings the safety of the city into question. Public safety. Police, fire, medic, you know? I think that’s a problem,” said Chief Gerald Smith, Richmond Police Dept.
The Richmond Coalition of Police “RCOP” is behind the campaign. RCOP says the current salary for a city recruit is about $43,000. The organization points out neighboring departments, like Henrico, start higher by about $9,000.
“I think they just insulted my officers,” said Smith.
According to the Richmond Coalition of Police, these are “your” officers, Chief. More importantly, there’s nothing insulting about pointing out that cops in Richmond have the lowest starting salary in the Richmond area, or that police officers can make more money working in suburbs that have less violent crime. What’s insulting, frankly, is the response by many local politicians and their political appointees.
Michael Jones, a Black city councilman in Richmond, said the argument that Leavy and his group have been making is disingenuous. After all, he said, public officials across the city, as well as teachers, have always made less than those in other larger and wealthier counties nearby who don’t have nearly the same poverty and crime struggles Richmond does.
“They knew what the pay rate was when they came in,” said Jones of officers. “This disparity wasn’t new. If you want to leave to go somewhere else because you’re going to get more money, that is your choice. If you don’t wanna serve here, don’t.”
Jones has objected to raising officer pay for months, complaining that the city should be spending money on affordable housing instead of increasing salaries for law enforcement and firefighters. And while I find his attitude insulting, the police chief’s response to the Richmond Coalition of Police is even worse. Chief Gerald Smith actually held a press conference a few days ago claiming it’s a lie to say the city’s in the midst of a public safety crisis, even though the stats tell a different story.
While he did admit the department to be understaffed, he pushed back on suggestions that the city was any less safe or that violent crime was skyrocketing. According to city data, homicides from January through May are up 20 percent and robberies are up 41 percent year on year. But Smith said those numbers are only inflated when compared to 2020 numbers, which he said were lower across the board because of the pandemic and lockdowns.
“We are doing quite well compared to previous years, except for 2020,” he said.
That’s not exactly true. Crime was down for the first six months of last year, but June of 2020 was one of the most violent on record, and the number of homicides in Richmond during the 3rd quarter of last year were 60% higher than 2019. In fact, according to the Virginia State Police, there were 66 murders in the city in 2020, compared to 56 in 2019. Going back further, homicides increased 11% percent from 2018 to 2019, so the idea that a 20% increase in homicides this year is an aberration doesn’t pass the smell test. Homicides have been trending upwards for at least the past three years in Richmond, and it’s a lie say that the city isn’t less safe today.
I’m generally a pretty calm and rational person, but I confess that Smith’s excuses for the rise in violent crime and his pathetic attempt to claim that the city is “doing quite well” makes me angry. My son lives in Richmond, and earlier this year one of his good friends from high school was murdered as he walked to a corner store to get a bottle of tea one April evening. It’s been more than two months and no one’s been arrested for the murder of Cody Woodson. I don’t know that anyone ever will be, to be honest, and I can’t help but believe that if the department wasn’t having such a hard time filling the large number of vacant positions, they might be able to solve more crimes and perhaps even prevent a few as well.
You don’t need a billboard to know that there’s a public safety crisis in Richmond, Virginia. It’s just a damn shame that the police chief himself would rather try to spin away the statistics than acknowledge the obvious.