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Abrupt Resignation of Portsmouth Police Chief Is Cause For Concern

By Leonard E. Colvin
Associate Editor
New Journal and Guide

Tonya D. Chapman, the first African-American woman to be named Police Chief of a major city in Virginia, has abruptly resigned without any explanation.

On March 18, City Manager Dr. L. Pettis Patton accepted Chapman’s resignation, naming Assistant Chief Angela Green as the interim leader. Greene assumed the job as chief effective immediately.

First sworn-in in 2016, Chapman spent three years of her 29-year enforcement career in Portsmouth.

A day after she announced her resignation, residents and civic leaders were working the phones and reaching out to sources “in the know” to get the back story on Chapman’s sudden exodus.

Portsmouth is the largest majority Black city in Virginia, although it has a majority white city council and Mayor.

One Black civic leader, who agreed to speak if his name were not used for this story, wondered “just how much support or friction existed from council members based on her reform efforts.”

Throughout her tenure in Portsmouth, Chapman gained support and praise from Black civic leaders who watched her actions and met with her, according to those who talked with the GUIDE openly or off the record.

In an April 2016 edition of the GUIDE, shortly after she arrived in Hampton Roads, Chapman said one of her most obvious challenges was diversifying the city’s police department. In a city which is majority African-American, the Portsmouth Police Department has 238 sworn officers, of which 63 percent are white males and 27 percent are females and/or minorities.

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Chapman’s surprise exodus caught off guard the city and especially members of the Black community.

Chapman was hired to apply community policing, at a time when the crime rate had risen. Also, a year before she arrived white policeman Stephen Rankin shot and killed William Chapman II outside a Walmart when the 18-year-old Chapman was accused of shoplifting.

Weeks after arriving in Portsmouth in 2016, she began to apply her version of community policing to relieve the distrust and tensions caused by the shooting.

A circuit court jury found Rankin guilty for the killing of Chapman in April 2016. It was the second time Rankin had killed an unarmed man while on duty. He now faces up to 10 years in prison, although the jury recommended just 2.5 years.

Former Chief Chapman was often seen walking through sections of Portsmouth, and she ordered officers to walk through communities and interact with residents.

Various residents described Chapman, “as well organized and called her own shots,” and tat she was willing to reach out to people and groups who had reservations about her efforts.

Another civic leader, who spoke off the record, said he had heard that Chapman’s efforts to reform the police department and culturally diversify it “did not sit well with” members of the mostly white Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Union.

James Boyd, the President of the Portsmouth NAACP, said Chapman is the latest victim of what he said is a systemically racist police force.

“You have someone who was trying to break a culture,” Boyd said in an interview with WAVY-TV 10. “This has happened in Portsmouth on more than one occasion.”

Boyd said during the interview with WAVY-TV 10 that he and Chapman had their disagreements. And he said the NAACP wasn’t happy with what he said has been a slow rate of change.

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The Portsmouth NAACP posted a statement explaining its position on Facebook: “We are aware of the situation surrounding Police Chief Tonya Chapman. We will have further comments in the very near future as we continue to gather more information from whistleblowers. We continue to witness patterns of blatant systemic racism resulting in the elimination of Black leaders in our City Governance and we are hell-bent on fighting it through transparency, accountability and policy changes.”

James Bailey is the Regional Director of the “Missing Voter Project” and Virginia Cure which lobby lawmakers to remove barriers and implement laws to help persons returning from prison in regaining their constitutional rights to access housing and employment.

Bailey said he met with Chapman a year after she arrived to discuss the various issues and found her “to have a plan for dealing with the crime, was in the loop and was reaching out to the Black community, and was very forceful in expressing her vision.”

“Nobody is sure why she left,” said Bailey. “But a lot of people get the sense that she is the old Black Scapegoat syndrome. Are they laying the blame on her for a rise in crime? Are there frictions between her and the good old boys within the department who are resisting her efforts to reform the department? We don’t know yet.”

Before she arrived in Portsmouth, then Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe appointed her Deputy Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security in 2014.

In 2011, she served as Deputy Chief of Police with the Richmond Police Department.

Chapman’s law enforcement began 27 years ago, with the Arlington County Police Department and progressed through the ranks to Captain and Acting Deputy Chief.

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