- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2005

RICHMOND — The new police chief in one of the country’s most dangerous cities has requested a U.S. Department of Justice review of his department’s use of deadly force.

Just more than a month into his job, Richmond Police Chief Rodney Monroe has asked the Justice Department’s Special Litigation Section to examine his department’s training and investigative procedures in every case where deadly force was used over the past five years.

“We can sit and point fingers at why this has happened and why people have concerns, but rather than doing that, let’s just look at it top to bottom and move forward,” Chief Monroe said. “Sometimes we just need to open ourselves up and see what some of the issues are and what we’re doing right and what we may be doing wrong.”

There have been 17 officer-involved shootings since 2000, police spokeswoman Cynthia Price said. Eight of those involved a person being killed, either by police or by a self-inflicted gunshot wound, she said.

Chief Monroe said his request was part of his promise to clean up the crime-plagued city of almost 200,000, which had the country’s fourth-highest murder rate in 2003 and was ranked the nation’s ninth most dangerous city overall in 2004. The rankings, compiled by the private, independent research firm and publisher Morgan Quitno, are based on six FBI crime categories: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and car thefts.

Chief Monroe made the request for a review about two weeks ago, but has not received a formal reply from the Justice Department. If the review is approved, he said, he hopes it will provide the department with guidelines on how to properly train officers in use-of-force and how to investigate incidents where deadly force is applied.

“I don’t know whether it’s going to solve the problem or not, but I do think it’s a step in the right direction,” said V Johnson, 56, whose unarmed son was shot on his front porch by a Richmond police detective in 2002.

Four of the five children of Verlon Johnson Sr., 29, were at home when he was fatally shot by Detective David Melvin, who arrived with other officers to question him about a robbery. Detective Melvin was acquitted last year of second-degree murder after two mistrials. He said an informant told police that Mr. Johnson, 29, always carried a handgun and that he fired when Mr. Johnson thrust his right hand into his jeans pocket.

“It’s frightening to think of how many lives may have been saved if the force had taken this step many, many shootings ago,” said lawyer Steven Benjamin, who filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Johnson’s widow against Detective Melvin and the city of Richmond.

Inadequate training and a faulty incident review process have contributed to the problem, Mr. Benjamin said.

“The training and the review mechanism concerning use of force in Richmond’s police department is so grossly inadequate that it unnecessarily places officers’ and citizens’ lives in danger,” Mr. Benjamin said.

The state American Civil Liberties Union also applauded the move.

“We have been concerned about police abuse in Richmond for some time,” said Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. “The problem is that it seems to generally stay below our radar. We get complaints on a regular basis but are generally unable to get to the bottom of them.”

Chief Monroe said he is hopeful the officers in his department will respond positively to his request.

“I hope that they would understand that this is something that’s needed in order to bring back total credibility within the department,” Chief Monroe said.

A message left for the president of the police officer’s union was not immediately returned.

For V Johnson, a review is reassuring, but nothing will ever take away the pain of losing a child.

“It was a tremendous loss,” Mr. Johnson said of his son’s death. “He wasn’t just a son … he was my friend.”

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