Special Report: The Portsmouth Racial Divide

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PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — On March 18, the Portsmouth community got stunning news:  Portsmouth Police Chief Tonya Chapman was stepping down.

One week later she would send a letter to the Portsmouth community telling the story on how she was forced to resign at the hands of her mentor, City Manager Dr. Lydia Pettis Patton 

In that letter Chapman wrote, “I have never witnessed the degree of bias and acts of systemic racism, discriminatory practices and abuse of authority in all of my almost 30 year career in law enforcement.”

That statement would make the community take notice that something was wrong. Since then Chapman has granted one interview, and that is with 10 On Your Side. In our interview she reiterated what she said in her letter of March 25 that, “There are members of a highly influential fraternal organization (The Portsmouth Fraternal Order of Police Lodge # 20) that have tried to generate a ‘no confidence’ on me for the past 2-plus years without success, as they have not been able to articulate valid reasons. Some of these individuals recently received discipline for policy violations.”

In her only interview on April 9, Chapman told us, “I was forced to resign. It was shocking to me.” She knew the FOP members were out to get her, but when she was forced to resign she was never given specifics. She claims she never had anything ever in writing from her boss, City Manager Dr. Patton, of what she was doing wrong, and what she needed to do to correct it. 

In our interview Chief Chapman blames Fraternal Order of Police influence over Patton, “they did not want to take direction from me because I’m not a white male.”

We confronted Patton about that at a council meeting, saying, “in the statement you are saying she lost the confidence of upper level management. That’s the FOP she’s talking about.  Why did you not tell her why you were forcing her to resign?” 

For 90 seconds Patton sat there with nothing to say and no answers. 

Again, Chapman was given no specifics, and that forced resignation has opened old festering racial wounds. She also dropped a bomb by telling us she has firsthand knowledge that the FBI is now investigating as we first reported.

“They are looking at any possible civil rights violations … as well as any corruption that may have occurred.”

State Senator Louise Lucas (D) Portsmouth: “There absolutely is a racial divide in Portsmouth, and it has gotten to a tipping point that I have seen in a lot of years.”

The longtime civil rights activist is so enraged by the Chapman forced resignation, she sent a letter you are only reading about now for the first time to the U.S. Department of Justice to internally investigate  the police department.

“I am hoping that will carry over to the administration, and we will find out that’s where a lot of the problems are as well.”

Lucas argues the major issue leading to Portsmouth’s racial divide is the dismantling of black leadership like Tonya Chapman, and the NAACP agrees.

“These are direct examples of people trying to dismantle black leadership,” says James Boyd, who is president of the Portsmouth NAACP.

As examples, Boyd points to Former Mayor Kenny Wright, who has said he was wrongly charged in 2016 by political enemy Sheriff Bill Watson for felony eluding over an expired inspection sticker. 

The charge was later dropped, but the damage done, and Wright lost re-election to Current Mayor John Rowe. 

Is Portsmouth suffering from a racial divide? 

Mayor Rowe says, “I do not agree with that statement. I don’t see that at the street level, and at the community level. I don’t see it in my church. I go to a diverse church. I don’t see it in my neighborhood.  I live on a diverse street.”

Senator Lucas, responding to when we pointed out that the city manager and former police chief, and the current police chief who replaced Chapman are all African American. 

Is this racism? 

“Look, black folks are often puppets for the people really in charge … you have other folks pulling the strings. I am so disappointed in the city manager. Historically that’s what happens. The racist always co-ops black folk to do their bidding for them. That is history of racism in this country. Nothing has changed … I do not have use for spineless people. They are worthless, and I’m sorry but this has kinda gotten to me.” 

Senator Lucas thinks the white majority council and the FOP pulled the strings to force the resignation of Tonya Chapman.  She also referred here to Dr. Patton as spineless.

Former Councilman Mark Whitaker was also investigated by Bill Watson, and was then convicted of 3 felonies he is now appealing.

“It’s sad in Portsmouth that you are starting to see a pattern of whenever persons try to change the status quo, they are met with prosecution, termination and resistance, and that is what we see.”

Whitaker points to former Portsmouth Fire Chief Dwayne Bonnette, who Whitaker says resigned after attempting to change the culture of the Portsmouth Fire Department.  Bonnette, through his wife, had no comment.

“Bias and abuse of power. I can see those things happening,” says former City Auditor Andre Thomas  in his only interview.  He won a defamation lawsuit against Councilwoman Elizabeth Psimas and settled another one against Councilman Bill Moody.

For both cases, Thomas got a total of $300,000.  He says Portsmouth’s issue is it has a gotcha political culture.

“Portsmouth will not get out of this gotcha mentality. That they are always trying to look for the guy to blame … it puts fear in people, creates a fearful environment. I did see that.”

The current FOP would not comment for this report, but During the 1980’s GA Brown was president of the Portsmouth FOP, “I have seen an increase in the minorities on the police department, but do I think things have gotten better, No.”

Brown points to unfair discipline to African Americans, lack of overtime, and promotions are still concerns today.

This all brings us back to Patton’s statement on Chapman’s ouster admitting in the statement that Chapman made great strides “to improve community relations, further diversify our police force, and make our neighborhoods safe.” 

Chapman supporters argue these are exactly the top qualities of a successful police chief. That is, the NAACP says, until she got in the way, “All of these examples and patterns trying to dismantle individuals that are in the way.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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