Editorial: Too good to be true?

·3 min read

As the nation reeled from the deadly, cowardly shooting attack on an Independence Day parade in Illinois, Richmond officials said a citizen tip provided key information to thwart a July 4 mass shooting planned for Virginia’s capital city.

As time has passed, however, this episode appears less emblematic of how citizens and law enforcement working together can bolster public safety, and more indicative of deficiencies of transparency and accountability at the heart of calls for police reform.

On July 6, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith announced the arrests of two men who they claim had stockpiled weapons and ammunition in preparation for an attack on Dogwood Dell, an amphitheater that hosts one of the city’s annual Independence Day celebrations.

Stoney and Smith cheered the information received from a “hero citizen” who contacted law enforcement after hearing the men discuss their nefarious plans. It was chilling to hear details of the plot only days after a gunman killed seven people attending the July 4 parade in Highland Park, Illinois, in an attack that injured more than 30 others.

“There is no telling how many lives this hero citizen saved from one phone call,” Smith said at the July 6 news conference.

Trust is at the heart of law enforcement, since a department which does not enjoy the confidence of the public is unlikely to receive important information that can keep people safe. It’s the sort of communication that police want to cultivate here in Hampton Roads, which was the thrust of an editorial published here in the aftermath of the Richmond arrests.

However, subsequent reporting suggests that what officials said at the time was not entirely accurate and may, in fact, be cut from whole cloth.

On Aug. 3, less than a month after the news conference, a Richmond prosecutor told a General District judge that there was no evidence that Dogwood Dell was the location of a planned shooting. The state withdrew its charges against suspects and they were transferred to federal custody. They face federal immigration and weapons charges.

Stoney and Smith continued, at the time, to defend the yarn they spun in July: police action had thwarted a shooting and Dogwood Dell was the target. But the mayor’s office also cited the working papers exemption in Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act in declining to honor a request by the Richmond Times-Dispatch for communications and records related to the incident.

A few days later, the police chief said he and the department would no longer answer questions about the case.

“We are closing all discussion about the planned Fourth of July mass shooting,” Smith said at a news conference to discuss crime statistics.

The chief later told reporter Patrick Wilson that he believed a shooting was planned for Dogwood Dell, even though the “hero citizen” celebrated at the July 6 news conference never specified a location.

“If I misspoke in that situation, I misspoke in that situation,” Smith told Wilson.

But on Saturday, the RTD published another revelation, thanks to documents obtained through a FOIA request: The tipster who contact the authorities did not specify a location for any attack. The chief was told that by his staff, but pressed ahead with his belief that Dogwood Dell as the target.

In less than two months, an incredible story about law enforcement working with the public to prevent a tragedy has fallen apart. That’s a shame for several reasons.

If these men, armed with numerous weapons and a mountain of ammunition, intended to kill, then Richmond law enforcement should be touted for their work. But by conflating it into something it’s not, it undermines that success.

Worse, it erodes trust in law enforcement in general. If they’re willing to lie about this, a citizen might reason, what else will they lie about?

That may not be fair and it may not be just, but this error was self-inflicted. And Richmond officials have only themselves to blame for the harm it causes.