Though brief, English’s tenure leaves legacy of outreach and reforms

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

As Harrisonburg Police Chief Eric English prepares to leave for his new role leading the Henrico County Police Department, he has a directive — not a suggestion — for his successor.

“You have to be responsive. You have to be accessible. People are looking for the police chief to be somebody they can turn to, be somebody they can trust, be somebody that has a listening ear,” English told The Citizen. “The chief of police needs to be inclusive. You have to include the community in some of the things that you’re doing, because they want a voice.”

English’s record of listening to community members won praise from former colleagues when he first came to Harrisonburg in 2018. It’s also what Harrisonburg City Manager Eric Campbell says makes English a true servant leader.

“He is a very good listener. He engages with people both in his department and out in the community. And when you communicate with the chief, you leave feeling like he actually heard you,” Campbell said. 

English’s last day in Harrisonburg is Sept. 10. Four days later, he’ll assume the reins in Henrico County, the area where he lived while serving on the Richmond Police Department for 29 years. 

“I had full intention of Harrisonburg being my last stop in my police career,” English said. “I just really honestly had no intention of leaving. This was just a golden opportunity for me to go back home and make a difference in the community that I grew up in and lived in for more than half my life.”

In his two years at the helm here, English has made it a priority to respond to residents’ questions and critiques with transparency. He established a Use of Force Review Board shortly after his arrival – made up of a police captain, lieutenant, sergeant, the officer involved in the incident and two residents who are graduates of the department’s Community Police Academy, who review each incident and decide whether the officer acted appropriately. English also reviews that footage himself. 

Early in his Harrisonburg tenure, local residents took to social media and the streets in protest of an altercation between officers and a young Black couple that ended in the arrest of Melissa Duncan, who was later acquitted of two charges of assaulting a police officer. English released footage of the incident from body-worn police cameras with the statement saying, “due to the need for clarification in this incident I am making this particular video available.”

Then, following racial justice protests in June of this year, English published data on uses of force on the department’s website, which includes the racial demographics of each case. 

As a police chief, English said it’s imperative to “make sure that your community has access to you. I think that is extremely key. As long as you do that and lead by that example, your officers will start to do the same, because they know it’s your priority.”

He’s brought other changes to the department as well – some when he first arrived, and others following local Black Lives Matter protests that decried the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people killed by law enforcement officers across the country. 

English began requiring every officer to go through crisis intervention training, which includes education on mental health and de-escalation techniques. He added a provision to the department’s use of force policy that obligates any officer to intervene when witnessing another officer using inappropriate force. 

And he made it mandatory for officers who’ve been through a traumatic incident on the job to undergo psychological evaluation. Earlier this month, while reviewing the contract for police officers stationed in city schools, he removed their authority to stop and frisk students.

In law enforcement departments all over America, though, “there’s just still a lot of work to be done,” English said. And considering the most recent police shooting to make national news – that of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin – “there’s just a long way to go, because … we continue to see the same things happen over and over again.”

Being a Black police chief at a time when police treatment of Black Americans has sparked months of intense national protests is a position that English does not take lightly.

“It is tough, you know, especially from my perspective, because I hear it from both sides. And I’ve felt it from both sides,” English said. “That’s one of the reasons that I stay in this. Because I know that I can make change.”

One way he’s tried to make change is through the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, whose mission is to “serve as the conscience of law enforcement by being committed to justice by action,” according to the organization’s website. After George Floyd’s killing, the organization published a press release supporting policy reforms that English read aloud at a peace rally and community forum on June 5.

The statement calls for mandatory de-escalation training of all officers, the prohibition of physical restraint maneuvers on or above the neck – such as chokeholds — and the requirement that officers intervene and stop other officers applying inappropriate force.

“I know that I can improve not only the way we do business, but the service that we provide to our citizens. And it is incumbent upon us as our leaders in our organization to make sure we’re doing that,” English told The Citizen

From civil demonstrations against police brutality and racism, to the global COVID-19 pandemic and its cascading effects on community engagement and mental health, it’s a particularly trying time for all first responders.

“I’m glad that we’ve gotten to endure one of the most trying times in American history with him at the helm,” City Council member Chris Jones said of English on Tuesday.

The pandemic in particular has put a hold on one of the programs English is most proud of – community walks. 

“We need to make sure we have connections with our community members and get to know them,” English said. “Let me talk to the neighbor that’s in the yard doing yard work.”

Mayor Deanna Reed expressed appreciation for the walks in a city council meeting earlier this summer.

“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.

However, the walks were met with some community pushback early on, particularly from immigrants’ advocates who said that, for some, “it’s incredibly intimidating to have law enforcement in their neighborhood.”

English recalled some of the first community walks, when a group would go door to door ahead of the officers handing out “know your rights” flyers. When one of the residents showed this to English, he said he instructed staff to “take this flyer, and I want you to post it in English and Spanish on our website. They don’t realize that I want people to know what their rights are.'”

City Manager Eric Campbell will soon begin the search for English’s successor. He’ll announce an interim chief in the next few days, but there’s no set timeline for hiring a permanent replacement.

“I really anticipate using a similar process” to the one used when English was hired, Campbell said. That includes a national search, probably with the help of a consultant to gather input from community focus groups and surveys.

“I just wish I would have had him longer,” Campbell said. “You know, the brighter the star, the more people that see it.”

Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We’re also a proud member of the Virginia Press Association. Thanks for your support.

Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We’re also a proud member of the Virginia Press Association. Thanks for your support.

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