Interim chief brings lessons from the past, vision for a future to Harrisonburg police

Gabriel Camacho, Harrisonburg’s interim police chief, has been through a police department disbanding and various reforms. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

The interim chief now at the helm of the Harrisonburg Police Department, Gabriel Camacho, comes into the role in the wake of widespread unrest in response to police brutality. Calls for — and arguments over the meaning of — “defunding the police” have been prevalent at rallies and on social media. But to Camacho, it’s not new. He has seen this before.

Shutting down police departments – “it’s not an easy process,” Camacho told The Citizen.

Before coming to Harrisonburg as the deputy police chief last year, Camacho spent 25 years in law enforcement in his hometown of Camden, New Jersey. The city of 70,000 has come into the limelight this summer amid calls for police reform because between 2011 and 2013, the city disbanded its police force and created an entirely new one.

“There were many factors included,” Camacho said. “Obviously, crime is a factor. Trust of the community is a huge factor. And I’m sure politics plays a role in it as well.” 

But for Camacho, who plans to apply for the permanent job of chief, this next chapter in his law enforcement career is about applying what he’s learned and helping the Harrisonburg Police Department better connect with the community. 

“We have a great organization here,” Camacho said. “So it’s not like I’m here to reinvent the wheel, but I am here to make this department better. And that’s what we should all strive for in law enforcement.”

For one, he’d like to look at why there are only “two or three officers who are Hispanic” in a city where the population is approximately one-fifth Latinx.

Both in recruiting officers and building trust with that community, Camacho acknowledged that people’s previous experiences with law enforcement – whether in the United States or Latin America – can be a barrier. 

“Unfortunately, sometimes they are targeted and victimized. And because they have that distrust for the police … they have that apprehension to go to the police,” he said. “So I look at it like, at that point, I have to do a better job. As an organization, we have to do a better job to engage that community.”

Another concern for Camacho is how the department handles mental health-related calls. Starting this month, the Harrisonburg Police Department will conduct training sessions with all its officers in de-escalating situations involving people in mental health crises and other situations. The training — called Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics, or ICAT — can help officers “slow down” a situation until other professionals arrive, Camacho explained.

This will be in addition to the Crisis Intervention Training that English began requiring for all officers early in his tenure.

“As law enforcement leaders, it’s an obligation for us to seek those trainings out, to provide those tools to our officers,” Camacho said.

‘Issues with trust’

Camacho has seen what happens when a department gets disconnected — and reconnected — to the people it’s sworn to protect. 

As WBUR reported in a June 11 episode of On Point, the transition when Camden’s police department disbanded was difficult. The city laid off 45% of its police officers. Then the city disbanded the force and created a new one under Camden county’s jurisdiction – a move that was later deemed illegal by the New Jersey Supreme Court. Afterwards, excessive use of force complaints nearly doubled from 2011 to 2014, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Today, however, Camden’s crime rate is at a 50-year low, and excessive force complaints have dropped to three per year — down from 64, according to The Guardian.

Camacho experienced these rocky changes first-hand. He graduated from the police academy in 1994, worked his way up to leading internal affairs investigations into his fellow police officers, and then was the third person hired into the county police department after the transition.

“We had issues with trust” in the city police department, Camacho said. “We had several cases where we had officers being arrested and charged federally for corruption. So unfortunately it was a perfect storm.”

After that transition, “failure was not an option,” Camacho said. 

Having grown up in the city, he was intimately familiar with the average citizen’s lack of trust in the police. 

“If you had an incident, you handled it yourself. You didn’t call the police, you didn’t reach out to the police. So there was no follow-up,” Camacho said. “I recall where my mother’s vehicle got broken into, and he stole the radio … and our thought process was, basically, go to the junkyard and you replace the window and get another radio and you kind of move on.”

Besides, Camacho said, most local kids’ first interactions with police were negative. 

“You’re locking up a family member. It’s a call for a domestic. A robbery, or God forbid, a shooting or a homicide,” he explained. He remembers one morning, when a mother was walking her child to school past the police station. The kid was giving her a hard time. 

“She pointed at the police, at us, [and said] ‘you better do what I say or they’re gonna come lock you up! They’re gonna get you!'” Camacho said. “And I was like, ‘wow, is that the impression!?'” 

The move to a county police force, for all its challenges, gave law enforcement an opportunity “to create a new narrative,” Camacho said. 

That narrative was one of community policing, in which officers got out of their cars and walked through neighborhoods introducing themselves outside of service calls. They held barbecues and movie nights. 

The mindset he tried to model was one of: “I am part of this community … I don’t want to be a guest. I want to be a member, a participant.”

The new county police department started seeing more calls for service coming from North Camden, which Camacho said “unfortunately is known as one of the most violent areas within the city itself.” The chief was concerned at the rise in calls, but to Camacho, this was actually good news. 

“They’re calling us!’ That is at least telling us that they’re willing to give us a try. You know, now it’s our responsibility to perform,” he said. 

‘He gets community policing’ 

Chief Joseph Wysocki, who took the helm of the Camden County Police Department last year, has known Camacho since he first joined law enforcement. Wysocki said Camacho was instrumental in establishing their community policing values.

“The culture that we have here – he’s a big part of where we’re at today,” Wysocki said. “I think the world of the guy.”

Wysocki recalled an accident in which a patrol car struck and killed a woman crossing the street. He said leadership by Camacho, who started in the new department as a lieutenant and rose to the rank of captain, was vital afterwards. He worked with the family to hold a prayer vigil “with clergy and all the residents. He really helped us navigate that particular incident.”

“I think Harrisonburg’s in really good hands,” Wysocki said. “He gets police reform and he gets community policing.”

Former Harrisonburg Police Chief Eric English felt the same. 

“Deputy Chief Camacho has some really, really great ideas,” he told The Citizen in a previous interview. He pointed to the department’s new Spanish-language Facebook page, which disseminates information on crimes, scams, and fraud. 

“It’s ideas like that, trying to get people to think outside the box, outside the norm, in order to be able to connect with our Hispanic community,” that English said he hoped would continue under Camacho’s leadership.

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