By Brandon Martin
Following a special legislative session called by Gov. Ralph Northam to discuss budgetary amendments, some local legislators are expecting police and criminal justice reform to also be on the agenda.
Local law enforcement leaders have weighed in on some of the potential legislation and the growing calls for reform.
As far as any potential police reform being discussed in the August legislative special session, Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry said, “we will have to see what comes out of the General Assembly.”
While he said that he is always open to hearing ways to make improvements, Perry said he thinks law enforcement in their totality have “been perceived that we act in a manner that we don’t.
“The whole situation with George Floyd was a bad situation, but we don’t all act that way,” Perry said. “Racism, here, is not tolerated in any form. It’s not even joked about. We’ve been going above and beyond for years with” tactics such as crisis intervention, implementing body cameras and implicit bias training.
Overall, Perry said that he is fearful of talks to defund the police.
“When we hear talks of defunding the police, that honestly scares me as far as what society could turn into,” Perry said, adding that defunding would lead to a reduction of police and demoralization of those who chose to enter the field.
“You’ll have random individuals deciding justice,” rather than the traditional manner involving the court systems, Perry added.
Speaking on the overall “defund the police” movement, Martinsville Sheriff Steve Draper said that he “would hate to see any defunding. Every year, we are fighting for funding, so to be defunded more than our current levels would be detrimental.”
Draper said that if law enforcement agencies are forced to cut other parts of the budget that officers, themselves, would most likely be affected.
“It concerns me because it dips into personnel,” Draper said. “If it is something where we can look at it on a year-to-year basis, then that may only affect some capital expenses, but I hate to see any talk of overall defunding because we know that it will inevitably come down on the officers themselves.”
In addition, Draper said that other aspects of the job would be affected such as technology.
“We are constantly updating our technology to keep up with the times. One big thing has been the use of body cameras,” Draper said. “Those are important because they go to helping ensure the safety of the public and the officer. Technology keeps changing from year to year and we have to keep up with those changes if we want to keep everyone safe.”
Draper’s main concern was the safety of the community should any defunding take place.
“Whatever you reduce is going to affect the jail, which will affect the safety of the community,” he said.
Draper said that since his officers primarily serve the jail and the courthouses, this issue isn’t as prominent as it is for those officers who are on patrol every day.
In his office, Perry said the majority of calls officers are called to respond to are criminal situations, but that sometimes fall in the realm of civil matters as well.
“Those can be a person struggling through some sort of personal crisis, they can be on some sort of drug or it can be someone who is experiencing mental health issues,” Perry said. “We have to be able to discern those types of issues and determine if they are a danger or not.”
Perry added that law enforcement officers can often take on the role of counselor when responding to situations, but the goal is always de-escalation.
“The diversity on any given call that we can be asked to answer is unmatched by anyone else,” Perry said. “We meet some people often on the worst days of their lives. We are often called on to handle situations that may be better handled by other qualified professionals and I think what we are starting to see now is the beginning of the process to separate those paths, but law enforcement will always be the most qualified to handle those potentially violent individuals.”
Perry said that in his 28 years of experience, sheriff and police departments have always had to fight for their budgets, and the levels haven’t always kept up with the amount that law enforcement has been asked to do.
“If you have a public gathering, everybody always wants a deputy present to help de-escalate any potentially volatile situation,” Perry said. “As these requests and extra duties kept being added over the years, we don’t always get the increase in the budget that we are looking for.”
Getting raises for local law enforcement officers is a constant battle, even though law enforcement officers are tasked with taking on so many new tasks and roles outside of purely criminal matters, Perry said.
“Raises are on a minimum scale for sheriffs offices, and they need to be better,” he said.
Pay and incentives to attract and retain “the most qualified people for the job” are among Perry’s main concerns. Attracting the most qualified people is difficult if employee pay is not adequate for the tasks of the job.
One proposal that Perry said that he is not in favor of is ending qualified immunity for law enforcement.
“If we truly do something wrong then we can still be sued but having that (qualified immunity) helps keep frivolous things out of the court system,” he said.
Regarding the downgrading of assault of a police officer from a felony to a misdemeanor, Draper said he also believes that change would have a negative impact.
“I think since it took effect, there have been a whole lot less instances of law enforcement being attacked by suspects,” Draper said. “Having that protection is important because it not only applies to officers on patrol, but also my guys working here in the jail, too.”
He said the threat of the additional felony for assault still plays a big role in keeping order in the jail.
Since inmates are classified by threat-level, Draper said “if they violate any laws while in our custody, they could be moved to a more secure part of the jail, which nobody particularly wants.” Draper added that he has not seen a lot of assault on officers, but he noted that overall misconduct in the jail by inmates has gone down.
Draper also warned of the impact some proposals would have for schools.
“School Resource Officers could be affected from any defunding as well,” Draper said. “Our SROs are extremely important to our elementary school children because it’s their first encounter with law enforcement. From what I’ve seen and experienced, these children really love having us around. They come right up and hug us when we are in uniform.”
Martinsville Police Chief Eddie Cassady said some of the nonlethal options that may be considered for elimination “are items we need to maintain order if violence was to start in our communities.”
Without those tools, “how are we supposed to do our job,” he asked. “On the other hand, if they don’t increase salaries, how are we going to recruit people to do the job?”
The starting pay/benefit package is estimated at $36,000, Cassady said.
Additionally, and in stark contracts to many areas of the state and country, “we have a great relationship with community. We are transparent. All of our officers wear body cams, and we were among first” to begin wearing body cams, he said, adding officers also are required to successfully and regularly complete a variety of training, including the areas of cultural diversity training and de-escalation training.
Like Perry, Cassady noted that officers are called to respond to a number of different situations, including in the areas of mental health and social services, “then you want to talk about the funding, but we’re still expected to go do it.”
The overall subject of reform is “a tough question to answer, but I think it’s got to be addressed with the communities involved, and unfortunately it seems like our legislators are looking at a knee jerk reaction instead of looking at the problems,” Cassady said, adding that he believes any reform should be community specific.
“We can’t just say what works good for the Eastern Shore or NoVa will work in southwest Virginia,” Cassady said of one of his biggest concerns.
Reform should not be “a cookie cutter stamp. Legislators need to look at different areas of the state” before developing a one-size fits all pattern, Cassady said. “We are a very community-oriented police department. We always have been.”
Patrick County Sheriff Dan Smith said he is “vehemently opposed” a number of potential changes that he said would “render law enforcement statewide powerless to defend themselves and citizens from danger.”
For instance, Smith is opposed to is requiring a warning before shooting.
“Hundreds of officers have been ambushed without warning, prompting them to return fire to save themselves,” Smith said. “Sometimes officers are placed in such perilous situations that they have seconds to react to protect themselves. Perfect example, recently, two Wythe County deputies were ambushed and shot from behind before returning fire and wounding the suspect. There was no time to warn before shooting back.”
Smith said he also opposed the elimination of special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams.
“SWAT teams exist to save lives, plain and simple,” he said. “Thousands of dangerous situations are resolved peacefully every year, including right here in Patrick County, because of these highly trained officers. That is the ultimate goal of a SWAT team. Without them, situations involving armed, barricaded suspects would often end in deaths of innocent people.”
Smith said there is also a push to eliminate less lethal weapons, such as pepper spray, tear gas and weapons requiring kinetic energy. He added that kinetic energy weapons include bullets, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds.
“Less lethal weapons, in many cases, give the officer more options to be able to handle a situation before it progresses into a deadly force incident,” Smith said. “Many use-of-force incidents have been resolved with the use of pepper spray or taser, with no serious injury to the suspect or the police. Furthermore, the language of banning the use of weapons that use kinetic energy leaves an open door to disarming law enforcement altogether.”
While there were a number of proposals that Smith opposes, “I support many of the proposals to include having a standardized process for de-certifying officers who are proven bad actors,” he said. “I support the ‘duty to intervene’ proposal. Officers need to hold each other accountable for their actions.”
He also said that he said he supported banning chokeholds as a restraint technique, which was the case of Floyd.
“I have been in law enforcement for 26-years and I have never known of choke holds to ever be taught to any officer in training,” Smith said, adding that he also supports de-escalation training, “which all of our deputies already receive and will continue to receive.”