Data shows police use-of-force encounters are rare but disproportionately involve black people

By Katelyn Waltemyer, contributor

Over the course of two years, 9,587 people were arrested in Harrisonburg, and during that time 86 encounters involved use of force — amounting to less than 1% of the arrest totals. But the confrontations in which an officer used force beyond handcuffing a person disproportionately involved black people, according to arrest and use-of-force data the Harrisonburg Police Department released Friday.   

Of the 86 use-of-force encounters, 31.4% involved the officers confronting black people. In comparison, black people made up 20% of total arrests in 2018 and 2019 and account for just 8.9% of Harrisonburg’s population

The city released on its website Friday the arrest figures from 2013-2020 and the number of arrests in which officers used force beyond handcuffing someone. Making the information publicly available fulfilled a pledge Harrisonburg Police Chief Eric English made at last Friday’s demonstration downtown. 

After releasing the force-related arrests data, English told The Citizen Friday he believes the amount of times the Harrisonburg Police Department has used force has been minimal. 

“It’s something that they asked for,” English said of those who have demonstrated for police accountability. “I’m just hoping they look at the data and they can make their own judgment about what we’re doing here.”

Ivan Christo, a Harrisonburg resident who attended the June 5 demonstration, said the person who asked English about gaining access to use of force documents had said he previously paid $300 to obtain the data through a Freedom of Information Act request. 

After hearing that, English said he’d make the records public and that he “wasn’t trying to hide” anything. 

“That’s why we went ahead and posted it,” English said. “We’re just trying to be as transparent as we feel like the members of our community need to know that.” 

English described use of force as anything “hands-on,” meaning that if an officer tries to make an arrest but the individual is resisting, the police may take the individual to the ground. Or with a mental health call, if the individual is kicking, swinging and resisting arrest, multiple officers may have to wrap the person’s legs or arms. 

“It’s all predicated on the fact that you had to use your hands and it went outside of normal handcuffing techniques,” English said. 

Use of force data for 2019 and 2018

Out of the 4,795 arrests made in 2019, approximately 76% of those arrested were white and 21% were black. Use of force was documented 46 times — one with pepper spray, five with tasing and 40 physical uses of force. 

In 2019, 19 of those with use-of-force interactions were white, 14 were black, 10 were Hispanic and three were “undefined” by race. Of the 46 encounters in which officers used force, 33 resulted in arrests. 

In 2018, Harrisonburg police made 4,792 arrests. More than 79% of the people arrested were white and 19% were black. 

Of those 2018 arrests, 40 were made with some sort of use of force — including one that required police to fire a gun, five with tasing and 34 with physical use of force. 

Twenty-four of those encounters with use of force were white, 13 were black and three were Hispanic in 2018. Only two use of force cases didn’t result in charges and in both instances, it was a white individual. 

Even though 19% of those arrested were black, about 32% of people involved in use-of-force encoutnters in 2018 were black. 

The Harrisonburg Police Department has a Use of Force Review Board, which is made up of six people: a police captain, lieutenant, sergeant, appear of the officer involved in the incident and two residents who are graduates of the department’s Community Police Academy. Board members review the incident report and the body camera footage, then decide whether the officer acted appropriately. Since English created the board, he said none of the officers has been cited for using improper force. 

The board began in August 2019 and met monthly. Because of COVID-19, English has reviewed cases alone since around March. 

‘Just not who we are’

Because he learned so much at the rally, Christo said he wanted the police department to be held accountable, so he and Harrisonburg resident Trever Chase wrote an open letter to the Harrisonburg City Council that highlighted key concerns discussed at the rally. 

“I just wanted to make sure it was all on paper and in writing for the city council to see … so that they knew,” Christo said. “I just have this idea that if it’s in writing and the local government does see it, then they can be more accountable for it.”

One of the topics in the letter was the city’s use-of-force documents. While the documents are free to access now, the letter also calls for police cameras to be recording at all times. 

“I think any and all policing should be transparent,” Christo said. 

But English said it would be inappropriate for the cameras to remain on for an officer’s entire shift because of privacy issues, such as bathroom breaks, and for sensitive case interviews with witnesses or victims of a crime. 

“Those are the things that people don’t understand about body-worn cameras,” English said. “It’s really not logical to do that.”

English paused. He took a deep breath. And he said he wanted the community to know that not everything that’s happening around the world reflects law enforcement in Harrisonburg. 

“I can guarantee what you’re seeing across the country is not indicative of what’s happening here, here in the Valley,” English said. “That’s just not who we are.”

Clarification: This article was updated Sunday, June 14, to clarify the description of the training the two residents who are part of the Use of Force Review Board. Those residents are graduates of the department’s Community Police Academy.

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