Stronger Together: A conversation with Lynchburg Police Chief Ryan Zuidema and Roanoke activist Bernadette Lark discusses the Kionte Spencer case

Stronger Together

Stronger Together is a special limited series produced by WFXR News to explore the issues of race in America. Each week’s episode airs Saturdays at 6 p.m. on WWCW-TV 21.1 and Sundays at 11 p.m. on WFXR-TV 27.1.

ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — In this weekend’s Stronger Together, host Charmayne Brown had a conversation with Lynchburg Police Chief Ryan Zuidema about how his department has listened to community concerns. She also spoke with Roanoke activist Bernadette Lark about her involvement in the Kionte Spencer case. Spencer was shot and killed after a confrontation with Roanoke County Police in 2016.

In Lynchburg, Chief Zuidema says the only way a police department has legitimacy in the community is through established trust.

“The way we do that is through accountability with our officers, through transparency with a lot of our policies, and through building relationships. We really have to build those relationships on a one-on-one basis.”

Lynchburg Police Chief Ryan Zuidema

He added that his department was working with community groups to make sure LPD is serving the city and its needs.

Zuidema also said the department formally banned chokeholds in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis Police custody. A Minneapolis officer was filmed with his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes even after Floyd stopped breathing.

An online complaint form is also in process and more meetings are planned between police and community groups. Zuidema added, “… that doesn’t mean we can’t improve and learn from some of the feedback we receive from the community.”

As for a push to defund the police in communities across America, Lynchburg’s top cop says “training costs money” and said transparency requires funding.

Zuidema also addressed cases where Lynchburg Police have erred and said screening is in place to not only vet new officers, but procedures are in place to continue monitoring officers throughout their careers.

Late Friday, Lynchburg Police announced six community listening sessions.

  • Community Listening Session #1
    Date: Wednesday, July 1, 2020
    Time: 6 to 8 p.m.
    Location: Jefferson Park, 405 York Street
  • Community Listening Session #2
    Date: Thursday, July 9, 2020
    Time: 6 to 8 p.m.
    Location: Diamond Hill Center, 1005 17th Street
  • Community Listening Session #3
    Date: Wednesday, July 15, 2020
    Time: 6 to 8 p.m.
    Location: Daniel’s Hill Center, 317 Norwood Street
  • Community Listening Session #4
    Date: Wednesday, July 22, 2020
    Time: 6 to 8 p.m.
    Location: College Hill Center, 811 Jackson Street
  • Community Listening Session #5
    Date: Wednesday, July 28, 2020
    Time: 6 to 8 p.m.
    Location: Jubilee Center, 1512 Florida Avenue
  • Community Listening Session #6
    Date: Thursday, August 6, 2020
    Time: 6 to 8 p.m.
    Location: Miller Park, 301 Grove Street

In Roanoke County, local activist Bernadette Lark wants more transparency in the death investigation of Kionte Spencer. Kionte was shot and killed by Roanoke County police officers on Feb. 26, 2016, in Cave Spring. The incident report says officers complied with policy and that Kionte would not drop a toy BB gun that looked like a pistol. Kionte’s brother, Carl, says there was no BB gun recovered from the scene.

Reviews by various agencies, including the U.S. Justice Department, failed to result in criminal charges for officers. But Lark says she believes there is more from the investigation that should be released, including body cam footage. Investigators only released still images at the time.

In an email, Roanoke County Police said all public information was released in 2016.

“We are aware of the renewed interest in the death of Kionte Spencer which occurred in February 2016. All public information about the officer-involved shooting was made available in 2016, including still photos taken from the dash camera video, the 911 call by a citizen reporting a person with a gun, photos of the weapon, and results of the reviews undertaken by multiple agencies.”

Roanoke County Public Information Officer Amy Whittaker

Lark told WFXR’s Charmayne Brown that she is working on legislation that would make it easier to prosecute officers who use excessive force.

“[Qualified immunity] makes it nearly impossible to prosecute and get answers when such shootings happen that are officer-involved.”

Activist Bernadette Lark

Del. Sam Rasoul (D-Roanoke) requested an opinion from Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring on whether the body cam footage from the Kionte Spencer death investigation can be released since the case is closed. It is support Lark is happy to have.

“We should be able to review the undoctored video footage and audio connected to Kionte’s killing,” she told Brown, adding that requests have been made in writing dating back to 2016. “We have been calling, we have been petitioning non-stop.”

“The only way we can currently reduce police violence is to reduce their contact between us and police.”

Activist Bernadette Lark

Del. Sam Rasoul was scheduled to be a guest on this weekend’s Stronger Together. He canceled his appearance due to a family medical emergency. We hope to reschedule soon.

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