More Roanoke Gun Violence Panelists Resign, Citing City Council Politics As Factor

The departures come during a year of intense scrutiny as Roanoke faces the highest number of gun homicides in decades.

A meeting of Roanoke's Gun Violence Prevention Commission in August 2023. Commissioners Decca Knight (left) and Stacey Sheppard (second from left) submitted their resignations in November. ROANOKE RAMBLER FILE PHOTO

Two more members of Roanoke’s Gun Violence Prevention Commission have resigned, one-third of the volunteer panel, citing City Council politics as a factor in their departures.

Commissioners Decca Knight and Stacey Sheppard join Nicole Ross in leaving the nine-person citizen board, which has clashed with Council leaders this year.

Knight and Sheppard said they would serve through the end of the year, while Ross announced in October that she would step down immediately.

“I sincerely hope that the resignation of three commissioners, all leaders in our community, will give pause to the council as it considers the path forward regarding the commission,” Knight wrote in her Nov. 21 resignation letter, which the city released Monday in response to The Rambler’s public records request.

The departures come during a year of intense scrutiny as Roanoke faces the highest number of gun homicides in decades. Roanoke police reported Sunday that officers shot and killed a suspect in a fatal stabbing who fired at officers. Police said one officer was in stable condition Monday after sustaining “serious and life threatening injuries” in an exchange of gunfire.

“I am disappointed … in the way in which our work has become politicized over the past nine months,” wrote Knight, a licensed counselor whose term expires in March 2026.

Council in October requested a meeting with the commission to talk about who should serve on the volunteer advisory panel, following the release of a critical internal city audit.

In February, Council requested an audit of how commissioners approved grant funding to local nonprofits and churches. While auditors found no evidence of fraud or abuse, they did fault city staff for not adequately tracking how nonprofits spent the funds on violence-reduction programs.

Mayor Sherman Lea and Councilwoman Stephanie Moon Reynolds have been particularly vocal about the work of the commission, which is tasked with researching gun violence, making recommendations to Council and helping the city oversee programs aimed at reducing the number of shootings.

The mayor has said he wants more people with law enforcement backgrounds to serve on the volunteer commission and expressed the belief that too many ministers are on the board. Lea has also pushed for Vice Mayor Joe Cobb, who chairs the commission, to take a less formal role on the board.

But to commissioners, Council’s concerns have not seemed helpful to the cause.

“Members of city council have never sent us any constructive feedback or criticism, asked questions, given recommendations for improvement, or invited open dialogue or collaboration,” Knight said in her resignation letter.

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Sheppard told The Rambler that many factors, including her work obligations, played into her decision to step down.

Workloads have increased drastically in recent years at the nonprofit Total Action for Progress, said Sheppard, where she serves as director of housing and human services. TAP's leader, CEO and president Annette Lewis, is stepping down to retire in March.

“I also find that there are far too many political distractions with the GVPC that are taking away from the real work to be done,” Sheppard said in an email. “Additionally, there is a repeated [theme], regarding the lack of law enforcement experience on the commission. I served as a sworn law enforcement officer for shy of 21 years and retired as the first female Sergeant with the City of Salem Police Department.”

Sheppard also noted her husband has also been ill of late and so she needs to spend more time taking care of her family. Her term expires in March 2025.

Ross, whose term was up for renewal this coming March, cited “overt verbal attacks” and “unfair, unjust and discriminatory” treatment from City Council as the reason she departed.

In an interview, Lea emphasized his appreciation for the citizens who volunteered to serve on the board.

“I can understand their frustration, everybody was frustrated, but it's not about politics,” the mayor said. “There was a period of frustration that we all went through this summer with the number of homicides in our city, and I guess we were trying to find answers.”

He noted he has wanted local leaders to focus more on curbing violence immediately than on offering programs that may bear fruit in the long term.

Lea said he is looking forward to the commission carrying its work forward, including with input from newly hired Police Chief Scott Booth. Council will likely meet again with the commission in February, the mayor said.

Cobb said he did not have much comment on the departures, but thanked those who have served on the commission

“We just have to stay focused on the work,” he said.

One of the commission’s latest projects is to complete a second community assessment meant to capture resident perspectives on gun violence issues. The idea is to understand root causes better so city leaders can help prevent and mitigate violence.

Community members can complete a survey or request to be interviewed for the report at this link.

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