By Liesl Graber, contributor
When Eric English was kid, he identified two roles he said he would never take on: becoming a police officer and officiating basketball games.
Regarding the former, “I was always looking at the danger of it.” And as for the refereeing — well, the child version of Eric English just wanted to play.
Now, after 29 years of police work — including his last five months as chief of the Harrisonburg Police Department — and 15 years of experience refereeing youth basketball games, that declaration from his younger self makes him chuckle.
Both roles form big parts of who he is today and how he helps shape the community around him. And the two go hand in hand because they both blend managing people and fairly enforcing rules to keep everyone safe, he said.
“There’s always someone who dislikes the call,” he said, specifically referring to serving as ref. “It’s challenging. You’ve got to have patience and thick skin, but you’re trying to do the right thing.”
Finding his callings
English grew up in Efland, N.C. — a town with fewer than 1,000 residents. He played basketball, baseball and football and went on to the University of Richmond where he majored in criminal justice and sociology and played basketball.
Listed as a 6’2” guard, English played four seasons for the Spiders in the late ‘80s, including leading his conference, the Colonial Athletic Association, in steals with 50 during his senior year, 1988-89, and also finishing in the conferences’ top 10 in assists and shooting percentage.
After graduating from the University of Richmond, English wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next. He thought about pursuing law school or joining the FBI. To get into the FBI, however, he needed experience in local law enforcement first.
“I thought I’d just try it out,” English said. “I tell you, six months into the job I knew I wasn’t going anywhere. I fell in love with the job. I realized this is a job that was made for me.”
Maj. Sybil El-Amin Jones worked with English in Richmond on and off for 12 years, observing him in various leadership roles. Jones described English as one of “the most level-headed, introspective, fair people I’ve come across.”
“In policing, you’re not always right,” she said. “You’re not always wrong, either. He always takes the time to dig deeper to find the truth.”
English also can connect with anybody, Jones said.
“He’s got the southern drawl, you know, hometown homegrown kind of guy. He understands small communities,” she said. “I think you have a person who’s interested in listening, interested in running a police department that has a relationship with its community. One thing he is always going to do is listen.”
‘Not a 9-5 chief’
After 29 years of living in Virginia’s capital city, the transition to Harrisonburg has been refreshing, English told The Citizen in his downtown office.
“Harrisonburg has a small-town hometown feel, and I like that,” he said.
English said the department has been welcoming and receptive to the changes he is bringing. Whenever he suggests a new way of doing things, he said, the response has been enthusiasm.
“The people here have been looking for some change,” he said. The change happens slower than English said he’d like. “But it’ll get there,” he added.
The first major undertaking has been updating policies, a project English has been tackling since his arrival in September. A neat pile of papers, four inches thick, sits on his desk.
“I mean, just look at this stack!” he said, thumping the pile with his palm and laughing. “We’re almost done. I can see the light now.”
He’s focusing on updating outdated language, creating easier-to-understand policies so officers and citizens alike can clearly understand expectations, he said.
After the policy changes are over, English looks forward to connecting more directly with the community.
“I am a people person,” he said. “I like being out talking to people. I don’t really like being in the office, that’s not me, but I know it’s part of the job. I’m not a 9-to-5 chief.”
He also said his style is to lead by example.
“It’s not only for myself, but making sure my officers understand how important that is to me,” he said.“It’s easy to tell somebody, do this do that. I truly believe you’ve got to be out in front of that, especially as the head of an organization such as HPD. I have to be the face of the organization.”
Community walks concern
In his Jan. 7 town hall meeting, English described what he calls community walks, one method for police and the community to connect face to face by visiting neighborhoods and knocking on doors to talk with residents. English held community walks in October and November and plans to begin them again in March.
“We think we know what’s going on because we’re a data-driven organization,” English told the group of about 30 people in the Thomas Harrison Middle School auditorium. “But when you actually go out and talk to people in person, they bring up the issues that really affect them.”
Some local groups have pushed back against this idea, however, as they are concerned the community walks will incite fear, especially in the Latino population of Harrisonburg, where many associate police with the threat of deportation. Several residents voiced those concerns to English during the town hall. And one group has collected a petition calling for ending the community walks in favor of a monthly meet-and-greet instead — an idea the group presented to English in a private meeting Monday.
“You know, I hear them,” he said a few days before the meeting with the petition organizers. “The police are seen as the enemy of certain cultures, going and knocking on people’s doors, bombarding the community with a high visibility of police.”
English said taking different approaches, such as the community walks, stems from his concern that relying only on town halls and meet-and-greets isn’t enough.
“The people you really need to touch don’t show up to those meetings,” he said. He is happy to do both, however.
He said the department will put out a press release before the walks happen to let neighborhoods know when the walks are happening.
“I’m trying to make connections with communities,” he said. “I want to hear from them. How can we better serve your community? Individuals know what they need, and we have to ask the questions.”
People are not required to open their door, he said.
“What we’re trying to do is create a habit of knowing. There needs to be that type of relationship where officers know their citizens and citizens know their officers.”
English said he also envisions holding a community event for K-9 Unit demonstrations, as well as informational sessions about the use of armored vehicles, and other Q&A opportunities for areas of curiosity. “It dispels a lot of rumors about why we use the tools we use,” he said.
English is involved in National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), an organization aimed, in part, at ensuring police know their boundaries and citizens know their rights.
“We do presentations on this,” he said. “It’s not something we try to hide. We tell you exactly what we can do and exactly what we can’t do. Let’s get my group out here, get some people together, and talk about this.”
Going to the other court
English said he also has ideas for new programs for local children, such as providing activities and programs for them to learn about law enforcement face-to-face with professionals.
“Of any generation, it’s the youth we need to be connecting with,” English said. He said he wants children to understand law enforcement from their own personal experiences with officers. “It’s better when you hear it from the individual in the business,” he said, rather than through media or hearsay. “We don’t sugarcoat anything. We tell it straightforward.”
Later this month, English will travel back to North Carolina to speak to 200 eighth graders about his story — a local basketball star’s journey to becoming police chief.
“I get joy out of talking to kids,” he said. “You know, that group has a lot of struggles. Any time we can provide some good information and inspiration for our youth, I think that’s a win.”
And English said he hopes to resume officiating high school basketball games in the Harrisonburg area starting next year.
He not only enjoys it as a way to stay close to the game of his childhood, but he also gets to know the players, he said.
English and his wife FeLisia ― high school sweethearts ― have two adult children and two twin two-year-old grandchildren. And English also passed on the love of basketball to his son, Jordan. He coached Jordan, now 23, in basketball from age 5 through 19.
The younger English said his father has always led by example.
“In him, I see a path, and I know he’s the way to it,” Jordan English said. “If I follow his words, maybe I can get there, too. He’s the very light in my darkness.”
For instance, right before Jordan English was about to play in a basketball tournament, his shoes were stolen in the hotel. During the game, Jordan kept thinking about his missing shoes — which his father had bought for him — and it kept distracting him from the game, Jordan said.
But his dad pulled him aside and looked him in the eye and said, “Forget the shoes. Just go out there and have fun and play hard and leave it out on the court.”
English’s advice has carried his son through many situations, Jordan said. “Whenever I have been dealt, he’s been there to pick me up,” he said. “I can honestly say I love my dad.”
At the Jan. 7 town hall meeting, English recalled how two former inmates in Richmond called him when they got out of prison. They had just seen him on TV walking through Mosby Park while going door-to-door to check in with residents.
They told English they wanted to start a basketball program for youth. English agreed to be a part of that. Before the kids could play basketball, English said, they had to go through classes like anger management, or meet potential employers.
“Basketball was just the carrot,” English said. The real goal, he said, was to connect these kids with their futures, and to build positive relationships with the local police department.
“These are the kinds of things I want to see happen here in Harrisonburg,” English said at the town hall.
Jones, the police major from Richmond, said for reasons like that, English’s former colleagues miss him in Richmond.
But when Jones recently asked English if he was coming home anytime soon, he told her, “I am home.”