Hburg Police Department makes changes in response to protests and suggestions

Harrisonburg Police Chief Eric English addresses the crowd downtown at a June 5 racial justice protest. (File photo by Randi B. Hagi)

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

The Harrisonburg Police Department added a provision to its use-of-force policy as part of changes in response to recent community feedback and racial justice efforts, Chief Eric English told the city council Tuesday. 

Other changes include making it mandatory for all Harrisonburg officers to review incidents of police violence that gain national attention and examine how the situations should have been better handled. English started that with the case of Rayshard Brooks, who was killed by police in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 12.

“We’re going to do that with every incident across the country that creates that stir,” English said. 

And the department’s use of force policy now includes the clause: “While reasonable force is required, any officer that witnesses another officer using inappropriate force on any citizen is obligated to intervene to prevent any further unnecessary force. The sanctity of life is of the utmost importance in any use of force encounter.”

Another change English instituted shortly after coming to Harrisonburg in 2018 was to require every officer to go through crisis intervention training, which includes education on mental health and de-escalation techniques. Previously, some but not all officers received that training.

Council member Chris Jones asked English how often Harrisonburg officers are called to respond to mental health-related calls or issues that would be best handled by the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board.

“Because I think in an ideal world, you and your team would focus on pure police work,” Jones said.  

English said the department and officers spend a lot of time responding to mental health-related calls. 

“We should not be in the mental health field because every time we deal with mental health, we’re bringing a gun, we’re bringing a taser, we’re bringing OC [oleoresin capsicum, or pepper spray],” English said, which can create “an opportunity for something to go wrong … I think there are other people that could respond to those without the police getting involved.”

He gave the example of police departments in California, which do not respond to certain calls involving individuals who expressed suicidal thoughts because police responding with their weapons can escalate that crisis.

As for better connecting officers with Harrisonburg residents they are sworn to serve, English told the council some important policies are already in place. 

After coming to Harrisonburg from Richmond in 2018, he began the community walks program, in which officers go door-to-door introducing themselves. The program was met with mixed reviews when it began last March.

“I think those personal relationships are extremely important … we need to get to know people not just in their times of crisis,” English said.

Mayor Deanna Reed said she was appreciative of the walks. 

“We were missing seeing our police officers in our neighborhood and it being a positive thing. So I can tell you that my neighbors are thrilled when the officers are actually walking up the street and stopping, sitting on the porch with us and talking,” Reed said.

English said he wants to have more conversations with local residents about the department’s role in the community. He recently met with a  newly-formed “community relations board” made up of a racially diverse group of nine people who each contacted the department with recommendations. English said one recommendation was to review cases like the one that led to the killing of Rayshard Brooks. Another was to introduce training for interacting with people with autism.

“We’re always looking to get better,” English said. Other changes he’s working on, he told the council, include more in-depth training on implicit bias, and recruiting more people of color to join the force.

A crowd of several hundred people gather outside the courthouse in downtown for a racial justice rally June 5. (File photo by Randi B. Hagi)

Weighing in for workers

Three callers during the public comment portion of the meeting thanked the council for adopting a resolution urging the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board to introduce mandatory, enforceable emergency standards to protect workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The resolution was adopted unanimously in a special emergency meeting last Thursday, during which they also designated Juneneenth, or June 19, a city holiday.

Vice-mayor Sal Romero, who introduced the resolution calling for workers’ protections, told The Citizen that the state board will vote on a draft of the regulations Wednesday.

In addition to health protections, Romero said an important component of the regulations is job security.

“In the last few months I’ve heard a lot from workers, especially from the poultry industry … people are very hesitant to speak” about work conditions amid the pandemic, Romero said. 

Romero feels that this resolution, as well as the council’s “ongoing conversations with the poultry industry,” could “unfortunately” be all the city government has the power to do to protect local workers. 

Meat and poultry processing plants in the Shenandoah Valley employ about 10,000 people, according to the resolution. Romero noted that many of them are Latino – who make up a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County according to Dr. Laura Kornegay, health director of the Central Shenandoah Health District.

If the regulations are implemented, Romero hopes they will create accountability for all employers “in making the safety and the welfare of the workers their number one priority.”

Also at the meeting:

  • City Manager Eric Campbell announced that the Virginia Department of Historic Resources notified city staff this week that they approved a historical marker for Charlotte Harris, an African American woman who was lynched in Harrisonburg in 1878. Campbell said the marker would take a few months to be produced, and then would be installed along a sidewalk near Court Square.
  • The council voted unanimously to spend $105,000 of the approximately $4.6 million in CARES Act funds coming to the city to forgive all 22 Disaster Impact Loans that were made to small businesses in the city. Repayment on the interest-free loans was scheduled to begin in July.
  • Council member Richard Baugh offered a message to residents who have foregone certain pandemic precautions, saying: “wear your darn mask.”

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