Police Department, Fire Department Tell Different Versions of Same Richmond Incident

A Richmond police official and a fire official agree that Sunday, multiple individuals interfered with a fire truck’s response to a fire. But beyond that, each source tells a rather different story.

I just watched a pretty good Star Trek episode exploring the premise that well-intentioned people can remember and sincerely believe widely different interpretations of the same events, without being intentionally deceptive.

When equally credible sources make conflicting claims, there’s probably a story there somewhere. If a source makes unverifiable claims, or won’t respond to legitimate follow-up questions, or vilifies or aggrandizes a third party, that’s a good reason to be skeptical.

Richmond, Va. Chief of Police William C. Smith

According to the police department, police had to “force their way” through “protesters” blocking their path with “vehicles,” in order to rescue a child whose home was deliberately set on fire by “protesters”. 

Richmond, Va. Fire Department Lt. Chris W. Armstrong

According to the fire department, a car fire (of unknown origin) spread to a structure, one “protestor” initially refused to move, a truck was “slowed” by burning trash cans, and all residents were safe before any responders arrived.

A saying in journalism is “If your mother says ‘I love you,’ check it out.” A news story driven by official statements, even from the most trustworthy sources, only tells part of the story. A well-trained journalist understands that covering any story thoroughly means doing more than just repeating what one spokesperson says in an official announcement.

In a dramatic media conference Sunday, Richmond Police Chief Will Smith told a story that has been widely spread by conservative voices, often to support the opinion that what participants are calling demonstrations and protests against police violence are instead riots.

Protesters intentionally set a fire to an occupied building on Broad Street. This is not the only occupied building that has been set fire to over the last two days. But they prohibited us from getting on scene. We had to force our way to make a clear path for the fire department. Protestors intercepted that fire apparatus several blocks away with vehicles and blocked that fire department’s access to the structure fire. Inside that home was a child. Officers were able to help those people out of the house. We were able to get the fire department there safely.

Richmond Fire Lt. Christopher Armstrong tells a different version of the same event. While the police department source says “protestors intentionally set fire to an occupied building,” the fire department source says a car fire spread to a residential building, but Snopes and WTVR-TV cite the fire chief as saying the cause of that car fire is undetermined.

Smith says “We {the police) had to force our way to make a clear path for the fire department” and says “protesters… with vehicles” prevented the truck from accessing the structure until police cleared a path. But Armstrong told WTVR-TV (“”Richmond Fire and RPD share different versions of early morning fire rescue”), “The person did not get out of the way” and that the trucks arrival was “slowed” by some burning trash cans.

Where the police official said “Inside that home was a child. Officers were able to help those people out of the house,” the fire official said when the truck showed up, the occupants of the house were already safely outside, and the fire only affected the exterior of the building.

Armstrong told Snopes:

There was a single protestor initially impeding our response however multiple individuals (amount undetermined) joined the single protestor in stopping the truck from after it was already stopped. At least two of individuals threw objects at the fire truck, shortly thereafter they all ran past the fire truck as Richmond Police Officers came around the corner as a response for our request for help.

After receiving the statement from the fire department, Snopes offered the police department the chance to comment on the apparent discrepancies. The police declined, saying “We don’t have details on the fire rescue – everyone is extremely busy with on-going protests.”

If the police admit they “don’t have the details on the fire rescue,” then it’s reasonable to treat the fire department’s account as more trustworthy and more newsworthy.