A Portsmouth, Virginia, police sergeant ― who charged a Black state senator, local civil rights leaders and city public defenders with crimes under his theory they participated in a conspiracy to “injure” statues glorifying Confederate soldiers who fought for slavery ― was the subject of an internal investigation for an email he sent to city officials that blasted the rhetoric and actions of those he would later accuse of committing felonies, HuffPost has learned.
Sgt. Kevin McGee, according to several sources, was also a prominent opponent of former Portsmouth Police Chief Tonya Chapman. Chapman, Virginia’s first Black female police chief, was forced out last year, which she said was a result of her confronting “racial tensions” from within the majority Black city’s mostly white police force and facing down a police union she said didn’t like her because she wasn’t a white man.
Current Portsmouth Police Chief Angela Greene, also a Black woman, has gathered support from a predominately white group of Portsmouth residents, particularly after her department took advantage of Virginia’s magistrate system and bypassed Portsmouth’s Black elected prosecutor to charge Sen. Louise Lucas (D), local NAACP leaders and Portsmouth public defenders with taking part in a conspiracy to cause “injury to” a Confederate monument. The little-known “injury” law previously referred to the Civil War as the “War Between the States,” a preferred term of Confederate sympathizers.
Sen. Lucas was on the scene of a daytime demonstration at Portsmouth’s Confederate monument in June, but, like many other defendants charged with conspiracy, wasn’t actually on the scene later that night when protesters beheaded four Confederate statues and caused one to fall, severely injuring another demonstrator.
The Portsmouth police stayed back from the scene at the time, only intervening once the man was injured. Lucas, citing the police chief’s poor handling of the incident, called on Greene to resign. Some officers on the force believe that Portsmouth police could have stopped the protester from being injured if they intervened earlier.
McGee disagreed. In his letter to Portsmouth officials the day after the statues were destroyed in June, McGee cited his prior experience as a firefighter and said sitting back was the right thing to do because the statues were “a lost cause” and the outcome would have been worse if officers intervened. “Occasionally you have to let a house burn in order to save the ones on either side or because collapse is imminent,” he wrote. He also slammed Lucas, saying her calls for his boss’s resignation were “repulsive” and “absolutely disgusting and offensive.”
“Chief Greene deserves nothing less than the highest praise and she should be given the resources to continue to rebuild this Police Department,” McGee wrote. “If Senator Lucas wants to place blame on anyone for this incident, she should start by looking in the mirror.”
Two months later, McGee went to a Virginia magistrate, a low-level judicial officer, to obtain felony charges against Lucas and 13 others. He then stood behind Greene during the press conference announcing the unusual felony charges.
McGee’s letter also attacked Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales, the first Black woman elected as Portsmouth’s top prosecutor, who previously prosecuted a white Portsmouth officer for killing an unarmed Black teenager. McGee ― who wrote in his letter that he was “afraid of ... persecution and prosecution for doing my job” ― claimed he’d heard protesters say that Morales wouldn’t prosecute them.
Texts obtained by HuffPost through a public records request indicated that, after Morales told Greene that McGee’s comments speculating about her approach to protester cases were “incorrect and unprofessional at best,” Chief Greene said she’d “definitely have a conversation with” McGee. Chief Greene also told Morales that she referred McGee’s letter to Portsmouth’s Professional Standards Unit.
A Portsmouth Police Department representative told HuffPost on Monday that they were withholding records about a Professional Standards Unit investigation into McGee’s letter, citing public records exemptions for personnel information and records on administration investigations relating to allegations of wrongdoing.
Greene, through the spokesperson, did not respond to HuffPost’s question on why she allowed McGee to work on the case and bring the charges despite initiating an investigation into his letter. But observers both inside and outside the Portsmouth Police Department believe that Greene is working to appease a vocal group of white officers, including McGee, who helped bring down the first Black female police chief in a former slave state.
The Portsmouth Police Department spokeswoman also confirmed to HuffPost on Monday that five additional defendants were more recently charged, bringing the total to 19 defendants. An image of one of the new arrest warrants posted by a local television station also listed McGee’s name.
McGee, in his probable cause statement against Lucas, said that she told police officers “y’all can’t arrest them.” She had no formal role in the Portsmouth government, meaning legally speaking her speech was no different from any other member of the public. While other people spray painted the monument while she was on the scene, she left hours before most of the destruction took place. McGee slapped her with felonies anyway.
The investigation into McGee’s letter wasn’t the first time he came under scrutiny. Sources told HuffPost that McGee faced multiple internal investigations for his conduct on the force. McGee did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Chapman, after her dismissal, told a local news station that she’d been told that the department had reversed the disciplinary actions she brought against officers, which may have benefited McGee by eliminating prior disciplinary action.
McGee, sources said, was also upset that Chapman wouldn’t promote him and moved him out of a narcotics unit. McGee is now a member of Portsmouth’s property crimes unit, which isn’t considered a highly desirable post.
McGee’s history helps explain why he was such an opponent of the former chief. Sources said McGee wanted the local Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) to take a vote of no confidence in Chapman, with one describing McGee as one of Chapman’s “most vocal” detractors.
Chapman said after she was forced out that the FOP “did not want to take direction from me because I’m not a white male.” The local FOP did not respond to a message from HuffPost.
After McGee brought the charges against Lucas, a white Portsmouth resident used Virginia’s magistrate system to bring misdemeanor charges against Lucas’ daughter, Portsmouth Vice Mayor Lisa Lucas-Burke, for calling for Greene’s resignation.
Moves like that cause Black leaders in Portsmouth to see the charges against Black political leaders as falling into a broader pattern of white Portsmouth officials using the criminal system to maintain power, as previously reported by The Virginian-Pilot. At one point, the city’s former white sheriff brought a camera crew along as he chased the city’s former Black mayor over an expired inspection sticker, then charged him with a felony. (The charges were later dismissed.)
Racial incidents within the police department have publicly flared up in the past. In 2018, according to The Virginian-Pilot, the white president of the local FOP was accused of calling a Black officer a “trunk monkey,” evidently referencing a series of television commercials from the early 2000s.
Observers both inside and outside the Portsmouth Police Department say the department needs change. When Chapman pushed to increase diversity on the police force, some white officers complained that the department was lowering its standards. Chapman’s attempts to implement the recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing faced opposition from some white officers, which some Black officers believed was simply because the blueprint emerged from the Obama administration. Officers say there are credible allegations of their colleagues using racial slurs, and described a department with a small contingent of officers who were very resistant to change, where racism always seems to be lingering just below the surface.
“Are there folks in my department, where if I went into their house, would I expect to see a grand wizard freakin’ robe and a Confederate flag in their garage? Absolutely,” one officer said. “But guess what, until I actually see it, I don’t want to go so far as to say that person is one.”
Don Scott, a Virginia state delegate who is representing Lucas, said he believes may of the problems stem from officers’ lack of investment in the communities where they work.
“The majority of those officers don’t live in Portsmouth. The chief doesn’t even live in Portsmouth, which is amazing. So nobody is invested in the well-being of our community, they come here for a check,” Scott told HuffPost. “We’re being controlled by a hostile force.”
Lucas and other leaders have previously asked for a federal investigation into the Portsmouth Police Department, but the Justice Department has all but ended those probes under the Trump administration.
The FBI did begin an investigation into allegations of systemic racism in the Portsmouth Police Department, but Greene instructed officers not to contact the FBI directly and said that officers should be accompanied by a city official if the feds wanted an interview.
Online, mostly white opponents of Lucas and supporters of Greene and the Portsmouth Police Department have denied racism motivates their movement, even as moderates have asked supporters to refrain from using racist or offensive language. Supporters have traded in racial stereotypes of Black Americans.
“Why does (sic) every time a black person breaks the law they blame white people?” one Facebook commenter wrote. “Stop using the race card!”
“Personal responsibility is lacking in so many people,” wrote another, using another familiar political trope frequently deployed against Black Americans. (White city officials in Ferguson, Missouri, frequently claimed Black residents lacked “personal responsibility” even as they condoned “a striking lack of personal responsibility among themselves and their friends” by eliminating fines, fees and citations, according to a 2015 Justice Department investigation.)
Even though the city ― after a yearslong effort ― has finally removed the memorial to soldiers who fought and died in support of the institution of slavery, Portsmouth will be dealing with the repercussions of the June protests for a long time.
The trials will be complicated. With many Portsmouth public defenders facing charges themselves, that office wouldn’t be available to help other indigent defendants. With so many defendants, there may not be enough lawyers on the court-appointed attorneys list to take on all the cases. Judges from the outside will likely have to be brought in, and they may not want to sit on the case because of Lucas’ position in the state government. They might have to bring in a retired judge instead. Throw the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on top, and you’re looking at what one person described as “a fucking mess.”
Observers of the situation unfolding in Portsmouth see it as yet another example of the criminal system being used as a weapon against Black leadership.
“The history of police in America is, at the same time, one of extreme lawlessness and brutality and one of the enforcing some laws against some people in some places some of the time in service of white supremacy and people who own things,” said Alec Karakatsanis, the executive director of the group Civil Rights Corps, who has litigated against systems of incarceration across the United States.
After Chapman was forced out, Black leaders in Portsmouth said it was time to confront racism within the Portsmouth government. Portsmouth Mayor John Rowe, a white man who is not seeking reelection this year, said after Chapman’s firing that he hadn’t seen a “deep, perpetual racial divide in Portsmouth.” The city official who fired Chapman, City Manager Lydia Pettis Patton, is a Black woman who Black leaders ― including Sen. Lucas ― accused of acting as a “puppet” for other interests.
“We believe there’s a deep-seated system of racism there, and we’re hell-bent on destroying it,” James Boyd of the NAACP said at the time.
A little over a year later, Boyd is among those facing felony charges.