When Roanoke’s police chief took to a podium last week to decry a downtown shooting, he had a message for the justice system: crack down on violent crime.
Instead, some of Tim Jones’ remarks have raised eyebrows, prompting debates about issues of race, music, policing and gun violence. Some elected officials expressed concern with the chief’s statement that more officers stationed downtown would not have prevented the violence.
Some community leaders also took issue with Jones’ invocation of rap videos in speaking about the shooting.
On Monday, Brenda Hale, president of the local branch of the NAACP, told members of the Roanoke City Council that Jones’ reference to rap videos “reeks of insensitivity.”
“Most of the people who are in downtown are there just to witness the show,” Jones said last week of the May 12 brawl and shooting, which injured one person and was captured on a video that spread on social media. “This isn’t some kind of rap video. This is a place where we live.”
The example specifically of rap struck Hale and some others as a racial dog whistle — an implication that the predominantly African American music is mostly violent, and that the genre had something to do with the shooting. Police have arrested one suspect, listed in jail records as black, in the case; police have not confirmed the race of the victim.
“We cannot allow children to be the burdens of having to feel that someone hates them when there’s a news conference,” Hale said of her interpretation that the chief’s anger was directed at African Americans. “This is not acceptable.”
Jones’ remarks last week were the second time in the last few months that sparked intense public scrutiny. The chief apologized in March when some interpreted statements he made as blaming victims of sexual assault. Jones later said he issued the apology in lieu of resigning.
“I do believe something must change,” Hale told council. “I don’t know what it all takes to make this change. But something has to change. Two incidents, it’s just too much. We do not want a third.”
City Manager Bob Cowell said Monday that while Jones’ mention of rap videos was a “poor example,” the chief wasn’t blaming the music for the shooting, but speaking generally about violent media.
“I think he made a poor choice in conducting a press conference and spending 22 minutes in talking about the issue at hand,” Cowell said.
“A lot of people called it racist straight out the block. And I thought, ‘What a poor choice of words,’ ” Mayor Sherman Lea said last week. On Monday, Lea said the chief would “have to really take a deep look about what’s happening with him,” but said he’s more concerned with the violent incident and how the city responds.
“I think the words are bad, but the words didn’t do the shooting,” Lea said.
Last week, Lea and city leaders held an initial meeting for a nascent collective effort to address gun violence. They spoke with residents “worried about bullets going on all over the place,” and who were “worried about how many times are we going to have to tolerate these shootings,” Lea said.
Society can’t lose sight of the perpetrators of such violence, the mayor said. Police have said a man walked to a car to retrieve a gun, shot a man, and returned the gun to the vehicle — all in the range of 10 police officers.
“Something’s wrong with that picture,” Lea said. “People have got to feel safe and that kind of action that took place just really frustrates me.”
Councilman Bill Bestpitch questioned at Monday’s council meeting whether police officers were being adequately deployed downtown, an issue that also emerged last year after a rare stabbing at Market Square.
“Do we need to be more visible? If they’re in the area, do people know they’re in the area?” he asked.
The city administration needs to seriously consider such questions, Bestpitch said, “before we just say, ‘Well, we have enough police officers down there already. We can’t stop this.’ ”
Cowell said in an interview that the police department is constantly juggling the appropriate number of officers downtown. Last week’s shooting would not necessarily prompt a readjustment of resources.
“Don’t tell us that we’re doing the best we can,” Bestpitch said at the council meeting. “I don’t think that is an acceptable response to any crime that happens in our community.”
A police spokeswoman said Jones would likely not be available to respond to an interview request Monday afternoon.
Last week, Jones said law enforcement has a limited role in regulating behavior in a culture that condones and glorifies violence.
“I could put a police officer on every corner and if someone intent to do harm to another one decided to do so, they would, regardless of where that police officer was standing,” Jones said.
“It boils down to us being willing as a community and as a society to accept poor behavior,” he said. “And until there’s an outcry through the criminal justice system to make it stop, folks, these people will continue to prey and spread their evil on the rest of us in society.”
Roanoke Times staff writer Matt Chittum contributed to this story.