Public unrest following a series of officer-involved shootings across the nation was the fuel behind a community forum in Leesburg Wednesday night.
“We felt like sitting and talking about our anger wasn’t enough; that sitting by and waiting for the next [incident] was not what we wanted to do,” said Zerell Welch, a founder the new Community Engagement Coalition that organized the meeting attended by Loudoun’s top law enforcement authorities and political leaders.
The forum at Tuscarora High School was the first of many planned by the group in its effort to spur community dialogue on the subject. Much of the evening’s discussion focused on how law enforcement officers and members of the public can create positive relationships, change some negative perceptions on both sides, and make sure Loudoun County does not become known for the next violent incident.
Panelists included Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA-10), County Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At-Large), Sheriff Michael Chapman, Leesburg Police Chief Gregory Brown, Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman, defense attorney Buta Biberaj, and Victor Powell, a former assistant principal at Park View High School and representative of Operation UpLift.
Both Chapman and Brown noted that deputies and police officers go through extensive training at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy in Ashburn to ensure that the high-profile violent incidents that have occurred throughout the nation do not happen in Loudoun.
“We’re making sure we’re hiring the right people, that we’re bringing the right people with the right mentalities on the job,” Chapman said.
Brown said he was assigned to the academy as an instructor when the Ferguson, MO, shooting occurred in August 2014. He said the situation created an opportunity to introduce some necessary training.
“We stepped our game up and we implemented training for recruits that addressed implicit and explicit biases,” he said. On the latter, Brown called implicit bias “very real” biases that we are unconscious of—something we all have that can affect our interactions with each other.
Powell cited an example from his second year as an assistant principal at Park View in Sterling, when he sported long dreadlocks. At the end of the school year, the school resource officer assigned to the school asked to speak with Powell, and made a difficult admission.
“He said, ‘having a relationship with a black man with long dreads has changed my perspective in a positive way,’” Powell recalled.
The two are now friends, who even golf together, Powell said.
Several panelists stressed the positive impact the school resource officers can have on youth, creating a positive perception of law enforcement officers at a young age. Powell said during the workshops organized by Operation Uplift, kids are given the opportunity to engage with public safety officers and see how they are trained to respond in certain scenarios. It’s an important time of sharing, understanding, and building positive relationships, he said.
“You can’t really get beyond the walls of bias if you’re not spending time with someone tearing down the walls of misconception,” Powell said.
Biberaj pointed to a law program run by the Loudoun Bar Association at the Douglass School that had a similar aim. She echoed Powell, stressing the importance of “finding safe opportunities for youth to meet with law enforcement so they understand we are a community.”
“If we don’t do something as a community this stuff we see on TV is going to be Loudoun tomorrow,” she said.
Brown said it is just as important for law enforcement officers to take the time to have positive interactions with the public, even simply by waving or smiling.
“If we make sure that our interactions with the public are positive, we win the public over,” he said.
Brown said he pushes the “guardian versus warrior” perspective for his officers.
“We started pushing that after Ferguson. Many law enforcement agencies were reluctant because they thought it compromised their position in the community, but it actually doesn’t,” he said. “There comes a point have where you have to be a warrior but 90 to 95 percent of the time you are a guardian.”
And being a guardian is exactly what the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office and other public safety agencies in Loudoun are doing the majority of the time. Chapman noted that, last year alone, there were 109,000 calls for service and in 120 of those did officers report the use of force.
“It really comes down to 1/100th of 1 percent of calls for service we have,” Chapman said. “When you look at the sheer volume of what we handle, you’d probably consider us pretty professional in the ways these are handled.”
The sheriff also noted that his office has a “robust” online reporting system for both compliments and complaints, with the former far outnumbering the latter.
Both Brown and Chapman said they have focused recruitment efforts to ensure the diversity of their agencies represent the community it protects.
Randall said that, as a mother of two black men, she has educated them on the proper way to interact with officers if they are ever pulled over. She said she instructed them to put their hands on the dashboard, stay still, and let the officers know if they are going to reach for identification or proof of registration. “What one person will see as a challenge another person may not,” Randall said. She tells her sons that if they want to challenge why they were pulled over that should come later. “But at the moment do exactly as they say and as slow as they say.” To applause, Randall noted how disheartening it was that a young black man “has to think that much about a police stop.”
The two attorneys on the panel, Plowman and Biberaj, disagreed on a point that has been hotly debated nationwide—whether members of the public should videotape or record officers during traffic stops.
Biberaj said she has instructed her clients to let officers know they are recording their interaction and put the phone down on the seat while it is recording. She has also said using a pen and a paper to jot down names and what was said is also a good idea.
“I think phones and recordings have turned out to be one of our greatest assets. It gives everyone an in-the-moment perspective,” she said. “It may de-escalate it rather than escalate it.”
Plowman offered another perspective.
“There are so many cases where there was an incident that escalated for no good reason” when cell phone recordings were used, he said. “You don’t want to get into a confrontation. The place to argue about a situation is not on the street; it’s in the courtroom. That’s why you have attorneys who represent you and judges to sort these things out.”
But Plowman and other panelists, including Brown and Chapman, said they were all for the use of police body cameras. Both the sheriff’s office and Leesburg Police Department have approved the use of the body cameras, with some sheriff’s deputies already equipped with them and more expected to be asked for in the county’s fiscal year 2018 budget. The Leesburg Town Council has also authorized purchase of body cameras.
Panelists and audience members agreed that Wednesday night’s discussion should continue. Comstock said that, on the federal level, she expects a focused effort on criminal justice reform to be coming up for debate by next year. But, she said, the problems need to be dealt with from the local level on up.
“We need to deal with it on every level,” she said.