Portsmouth chief Tonya Chapman, first black woman to lead city police force in Va., resigns

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PORTSMOUTH, Va. (AP) — The first black woman to lead a municipal police force in Virginia abruptly resigned from her job Monday as the police chief in Portsmouth, a majority black city that was roiled by a police shooting before she arrived.

Tonya Chapman offered no public explanation for her departure after three years. City officials declined to the discuss matter, saying it was a personnel issue.

Chapman was seen by some community activists as a more progressive chief who focused on community policing. For instance, she encouraged officers to walk through neighborhoods after a homicide.

But some officers believed she held them back from making enough arrests and being more effective.

“The law enforcement officers are terribly dissatisfied there,” said Ed Schardein, a retired captain from Portsmouth. “They had their hands tied.”

“Cops want to be cops,” Schardein continued. “The officers are told to go out and walk in the community after a major crime has happened. That’s understandable. But that’s not what’s happening in Portsmouth. They’re just going out there to shake hands and say everything is fine.”

But James Boyd, president of Portsmouth’s NAACP chapter, 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. “This has happened in Portsmouth on more than one occasion.”

Boyd said 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.

But he credited Chapman with increasing diversity in the department, both in the lower and higher ranks.

“We weren’t happy with the rate of the progress, but certainly progress was being made,” he said.

Chapman’s nearly 30-year career has included prominent law enforcement jobs with the state of Virginia and in places such as Richmond and Arlington.

She was sworn in as Portsmouth’s chief in 2016. The city of nearly 100,000 people sits across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk and is a short drive to the Atlantic Coast. It’s home to a large Navy medical center and a sprawling shipyard that serves the U.S. Navy.

Chapman brought with her a noted background in community policing at a time when the city’s homicide rate had been climbing. The community was also tense after a police-involved shooting.

In 2015, then-officer Stephen Rankin had shot and killed William Chapman II, outside a Walmart. The 18-year-old was unarmed and had been suspected of shoplifting. Rankin had claimed self-defense, saying that Chapman knocked away his stun gun and then charged at him.

Rankin was ultimately convicted of voluntary manslaughter.

Rocky Hines, co-founder of the Portsmouth-based Coalition for Black Americans, said Chapman understood that people were going to protest over police shootings.  

He said she made an effort to listen to protesters while trying to ensure everyone’s safety.

“Personally, I started to like her a little bit,” Hines said. “I saw her out in the community. She made an effort to promote the transparency that we’ve been looking for for quite a while now.”

Assistant Chief Angela Greene has been named interim Police Chief.

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