Dr. Michael Jones has submitted a bill to ban chokeholds, tear gas, and rubber bullets in Richmond. In this exclusive interview, he talks to RVA Mag about what needs to be done to reform the city’s police force.
Given the ongoing police violence over the past month, RVA Mag wanted to better understand who was calling the shots on the ground. We turned to Richmond City Councilman Dr. Michael Jones, who has been demanding an end to police violence. Jones and Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch have been seen at protests, giving them a ground-level perspective on recent events.
Since his election in 2016, the councilman has written policy and led council efforts to remove monuments and effect stronger gun control within Richmond. However, firm public positions regarding police accountability and defunding represent new priorities for Jones, especially in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and our local unrest. During our conversation, we talked about his pending legislation to ban chokeholds, tear gas, and rubber bullets, and the need for an independent investigation into Richmond Police Department violence toward protesters, as well as the shooting of Marcus-David Peters, an unarmed Black man killed by RPD in 2018.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RVA Mag: Hello, Dr. Jones, thanks for making time to chat with us. We’re assuming you’re burning at full steam with everything happening on the street?
Jones: How many times are you really a part of history? This is some dope shit, it just is. Regardless of where you sit with the monuments — 130 years. That’s ridiculous, right?
RVA Mag: During this historical moment, we’ve witnessed numerous incidents during which the RPD has used force against protesters. Many citizens have described Richmond as a city in crisis. Are we a city in crisis?
Jones: I would say we are a city that’s always been in crisis. You find out what you’re made of when pressure is applied. That’s the essence of a crisis. Other cities are handling the same things we’re going through differently. Richmond has its own demons.
RVA Mag: The reason “crisis” feels apt is both parties have no intersection of understanding. The crisis is that the demands of the protesters are being met by endless police violence.
Jones: You are expecting a dog to do something other than bite or bark. Our policing in America is based on a warrior mentality. We have to have some forward thinking with regards to law enforcement. You can’t beat us and protect us simultaneously. I think people are wrestling with this understanding and finally seeing what the African American community has been saying for fucking decades. We didn’t create this public perception of how the police is viewed — they have to own it. You have just enough white Americans now saying “this is bull.” Because I’ll say this, if it was just brothers getting tear gassed, white America wouldn’t care. They just now started caring about Blacks being killed by the police.
RVA Mag: Let’s drill into some specifics. Do you know why Chief Blackwell stepped down so quickly?
Jones: I don’t know the timeline. Do I think he was the best hire? All you had to do was listen to what came out of his mouth… “We’re going to take back the city.” Really? That’s not what we need.
RVA Mag: The timeline for hiring Chief [Gerald] Smith was peculiar given the job ad for a new chief in the Times Dispatch — two days after they had already appointed someone. Was city council consulted on the search?
Jones: We’re not consulted with most searches. Honestly, I don’t believe in trying to micromanage the administration. I think council is shirking its responsibility in exercising their oversight.
RVA Mag: Do you have the type of relationship with the mayor in which he seeks your counsel?
Jones: I am a friend of Levar Stoney…But I am a politician. My people didn’t put me in here to fight the mayor. I pride myself on building good relationships — it is what I do.
RVA Mag: Do you feel a more robust month-long national search could have revealed a more suitable hire and more diverse applicant pool?
Jones: With what I know about how chiefs are handled, they go to “chief-makers.” They will go and talk to other chiefs and get recommendations on who they think is ready to be a chief.
RVA Mag: We’ve posted numerous shocking videos this month of police violence — do you think it is fair to say the RPD has gone rogue?
Jones: This is what police do. You are expecting something different from the police… America is seeing what African Americans have experienced forever. There is a warrior, militaristic mentality within law enforcement all throughout the country.
Stephanie Lynch and I were leaving [one of the protests]. The crowd dispersed. We were a block and a half away from Grace — literally — going towards our cars, roughly right next to the Jefferson. Tear gas canisters launched our way. A block and a half. What the hell? The crowd is dispersed. Why a canister a block and a half away? That is the wrong policy.
RVA Mag: Some cities throughout America have now taken a progressive approach to police reforms. Even last night in Norfolk, they held a sleep-in at city hall, which did not end in egregious police violence. How did we get it so wrong?
Jones: Richmond is the former capital of the Confederacy and we have lived that out. [Richmond] will uphold the Virginia way, and power is in the business of staying in power. That law enforcement entity is there to ensure this. They didn’t get twisted until protesters went out on Monument Ave…Next thing we know folks got tear gassed at 7:30pm, a half-hour before curfew.
RVA Mag: You’ve now submitted your bill to city council to get rid of chokeholds, flash bangs, tear gas, rubber bullets — what’s your level of confidence in getting this passed?
Jones: I’m worried, and it is problematic. This should be a 9-0 vote, but I am getting “what-about-isms” on council and elsewhere. I think it is anti-American and wrong… I know Steph and I are there. But I also know we have people who are pro-police on council. It should come out of committee with a recommendation to approve. I don’t trust that it will.
RVA Mag: Are you aware of any disciplinary proceedings against the RPD? The mayor put it out there and the police are spinning a narrative which has been contradicted by the videos we’ve all seen. Who runs the police department if there is no accountability or oversight?
Jones: No — I wish. If they are telling me they’re not using rubber-bullets — that’s why I went out there. I called the mayor while I was out there and told him “they’re popping shit back here.” The mayor called [the RPD] and said they’re not… I think [RPD] are giving some bad information, and some people are spinning some things, which shouldn’t be spun. And if the mayor’s not getting accurate information then someone should be fired…Unfortunately it is their MO to do whatever they want and spin the narrative.
RVA Mag: Are you confident that RPD is working within legal boundaries when they declare unlawful assembly?
Jones: You’re expecting blood out of a turnip. You’re expecting an apple to be anything other than crunchy. I’ve heard an amendment [to anti-tear gas legislation] saying: “Let’s ban it except for a riot…” They’ll deem it a riot if they want to!
RVA Mag: Do you support the disengagement of law enforcement from Marcus-David Peters circle?
Jones: When I’m working through back channels, I’ve said, “If you guys stand down it will be different.” And so, there was a night that it was. Some calls were made… [But] if you come in riot gear, they’re going to walk up to you. Because it’s an act of intimidation.
RVA Mag: Do you have a sense of how much the city has spent fighting protesters?
Jones: That’s one of my asks. When we get it, I’m going to make it public. Tell the people how much it is. I want to know about asset forfeiture. I want to know what y’all are doing with that money. Where’s it going when you get the money from these dope boys?
RVA Mag: What’s the general atmosphere at City Council? We’ve seen a month of strife, and outside of you and Councilwoman Lynch, the bench has been pretty quiet.
Jones: [Councilpersons] are saying they want it to end. “Stop tearing up our city.” You’ve got that side saying that. It’s still Virginia. We’re still moderate and conservative.
RVA Mag: Do you have the sense that the majority of City Council feels that it’s the protesters who need to stand down more than the cops?
Jones: I would say we have a lot of pro-police persons on city council. They’re terrified by the word ‘defund.’
RVA Mag: You tweeted about it a month ago, but what’s your stance on defunding?
Jones: I’m putting in the paper… I’ve seen firsthand how they go in and beef up their budget. The mayor did a good job of stopping this practice because a budget would be introduced, the department heads wouldn’t like the amount that was budgeted, so they would come back to Council and get five votes for this [extra] thing. You have the chief of police coming around saying, “Look, we’ve got this model, predictive policing, it’s going to make our streets safer, we can do these things…” And I didn’t know any better, so I thought, “OK, this is how it’s done.” But it’s like, “You guys are inflating things. Do you actually need it?”
RVA Mag: Do you have a sense of what the chain of command is when things are happening in real-time at protests? Is the mayor involved in real time? The police chief?
Jones: I know [they] have [their] frontline guys. I know there are some sergeants on-hand behind them, and I know they’re on the phone with someone in some other place. That place could be five blocks away, it could be at the top of a tower. I don’t know. But I know this: if I were the chief of police, I’m going to try and make some calls. It’s going to be all hands on deck. We’re going to treat tear gas like it’s deadly force.
RVA Mag: The RPD press release on the morning of June 27 stated there were no chemical agents used on demonstrators on June 26, except for one demonstrator who was pepper sprayed. However, several people were suffering from chemical exposure. Do you support an independent investigation into instances when it seems like the police have not been transparent?
Jones: With you putting me on the record for it, I think we’re going to get to that. We have been talking about the need for an independent investigation into what’s going on. There have been so many conflicting stories… you tear-gassed innocent civilians! We need to have an in-depth conversation. We need to investigate. I need someone coming from outside. I’ve always believed the police cannot police the police.
RVA Mag: I know it is not your domain as a Councilman, but do you support the re-opening of the Marcus-David Peters case?
Jones: Here’s what I think — the police do a shitty job of ministering and serving the families of the deceased. You can go back to 2002. I talked to the family.
RVA Mag: The family of the deceased victim of former Chief Blackwell’s shooting?
Jones: Yes. How they were treated is abhorrent.
RVA Mag: Can you speak to that in detail?
Jones: Nope. This is out of respect to the family. This is real talk. They don’t want any press from this.
RVA Mag: We’ve seen the family’s memo. They did release a public memo stating that they’ve been lied to.
Jones: What’s in that memo does not get to the heart-wrenching detail. So, if [Peters’ sister] Princess Blanding and the family of Marcus-David Peters is going through anything like what this other family went through, even though it’s already been investigated, it should be done.
RVA Mag: Do you have any plan to encourage the Commonwealth’s Attorney to re-open the case?
Jones: I would be willing to have a conversation with her and say, “What is it going to take?” This family has a hole in their heart that may never be filled. And I’ll say this: I don’t think I handled it as well as I could have as a Black male on City Council.
RVA Mag: What do you wish you had done better?
Jones: I wish I would have been more vocal. I wish I had persisted more. I wish I had conversations with the family sooner… I learned a lot. I sent out a tweet [about the killing of Marcus-David Peters]: “Naked. Unarmed. Waiting…” Can I tell you that Chief [Durham] called me? It wasn’t a pleasant conversation.
RVA Mag: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Good luck with everything.
*Landon Shroder contributed to this interview. Top Photo: Dr. Michael Jones, via Twitter