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Virginia’s new policing laws follow Harrisonburg’s lead on some policies

Harrisonburg’s Public Safety Building (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

While local and regional activists have applauded law enforcement reforms the state legislature passed in October, those new measures might not change much for officers and residents in the Harrisonburg area because similar policies are already in place.  

“As I go over it, many are things I see we as an agency are fortunate to be ahead of,” said Gabriel Camacho, interim chief of the Harrisonburg Police Department.  

In October, Governor Ralph Northam signed into law a package of police reform measures that combined more than a dozen Virginia House and Senate bills. Among the new laws are provisions that establish: 

  • standards on officer training, hiring and decertification;
  • limitations on the use of neck restraints and access to military-style weapons;
  • and a total ban of no-knock warrants. 

The department already trains officers in de-escalation tactics, implied biases, and crisis intervention. Its use of force policy also prohibits the use of chokeholds “except where deadly force is justified.” 

Similarly, Virginia house bill 5069 allows chokeholds and other neck restraints only when “immediately necessary to protect the officer or another person.” 

In June, Harrisonburg’s police department added a clause to this policy instructing officers to intervene when they see another officer using force that is “beyond reasonable on any citizen,” which mirrors house bill 5029

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

And Camacho said, to his knowledge, the department has no history of using no-knock warrants, which are now banned by house bill 5099. Issues surrounding no-knock search warrants have fueled public anger in the wake of the March 13 shooting death of Breonna Taylor at the hands of Louisville, Kentucky, police. 

Camacho also said Harrisonburg police won’t be affected by the limitations on military-grade equipment, like grenades or firearms of .50 caliber or higher.

“I mean, some of these would be things that I wouldn’t even think would be practical,” Camacho said. The department does have an armored vehicle, which Camacho said would be used to enter situations “where you have a barricaded person or an officer in need or a hostage situation.”

While Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson was not available for an interview by press time, he did provide The Citizen with a copy of the department’s use of force policy. Similar to the Harrisonburg Police Department’s, the policy limits the use of neck restraints and does not include any military-style weapons that would be prohibited by the reform bills. However, the sheriff’s office policy does not include any language about intervening if an officer uses excessive force. 

As for questions about how they train sheriff’s deputies, Hutcheson referred those questions to the Central Shenandoah Criminal Justice Training Academy in Weyers Cave, of which the sheriff’s office is a member. 

Executive Director Andy McNally told The Citizen that the academy’s curriculum already includes the trainings outlined in the reform bills, including courses such as “de-escalation of interpersonal conflict” and “ensuring bias-free policing.”

“We were [already] going above and beyond the minimum,” McNally said. He also sits on the curriculum review committee for the commonwealth, which is currently working on a total review of the law enforcement curriculum – the first time it’s been worked over in its entirety since 1998.

“It’s a daunting process … I think it’s going to be a lot better,” McNally said, in part because it will include the reform bills’ mandates. 

Praise for some reforms

Community organizer Stan Maclin, who led peace rallies this summer in the wake of George Floyd’s death, praised the governor and state legislators for these reforms.

“It’s long overdue,” Maclin said. “I think that criminal justice has been aching for something like this for quite some time, and I’m glad that Virginia has stepped up along with other states to make a difference.”

One of the reforms, which he said stood out, was house bill 5104, which requires law enforcement agencies and jails to look into the employment history and disciplinary records of potential hires. 

“A lot of guys, they might be a rogue cop in one jurisdiction, and they run into some trouble, and you know what they do? They just go and apply for new employment in another area and get accepted without checking out their background or anything like that,” Maclin said. “So this is a good one.”

He said he was also happy to see the provisions for localities to create civilian law enforcement review boards that can issue subpoenas and make disciplinary decisions. 

“Having these laws on the books is good, but they have to be enforced,” he said. “They have to be carried out. So I’m really excited about a citizen review board because hopefully they could help to monitor and to help facilitate a lot of these important new laws.”

To this end, Maclin has been working through the People’s Equality Commission of the Shenandoah Valley, or “PECO” for short, to try and get more citizen representation on the area Community Criminal Justice Board. 

Protesters participating in a June 1 silent march call for police and justice system reforms.

Some activists want more

Other activists, however, said they were skeptical about the efficacy of legislation when addressing law enforcement issues. 

“I’ve really become hesitant of relying on the government to solve some of these issues,” said Corey Chandler, a criminal justice reform advocate. He’s studying restorative justice at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. (Editor’s note: The writer works part time for EMU.) 

“Law enforcement is, I feel … a direct reflection of the society in which it serves,” Chandler said. “So if there’s issues in our law enforcement that we want to address, then there’s probably an issue in society that is contributing to these issues in law enforcement. And part of that is that we’ve given way too much to law enforcement to deal with.” 

“Police aren’t really the appropriate responders to a mental health crisis,” Chandler added. 

Both he and fellow EMU student Addison Tucker, an anti-racism activist, said they were disappointed that a bill ending qualified immunity for police did not make it into the final package Northam signed. And they’re both interested in community-based systems of public safety that don’t rely on armed officers, such as those endorsed by proponents of transformative justice.

Tucker gave the example of Aboriginal night patrols in Australia, which are essentially “just people walking around and just being present in the community and seeing someone that looks like they need help,” she said, “and saying ‘let’s take you to a shelter and get you sober, let’s try and like calm this dispute down before the police have to be called.'” 

A view from both sides

One Harrisonburg resident, Joe Dudash, has viewed the justice system from both sides of the law. He worked as a guard at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center for three years and as a patrolman at Western State Hospital in Staunton for four years. But after going through a divorce, a rack of injuries including a broken shoulder and neck, and the resulting surgeries, he had problems with substance use.

“I was actually locked up there for a while. I spent 15 months in jail. I caught a drug charge and I was, you know, using pain meds pretty bad at the time,” Dudash said.

While ending up incarcerated was “an eye-opener,” Dudash said that “the way the COs [correctional officers] treated the people in Rockingham was very fair. I was very surprised about that. There was no real favoritism.” 

As far as reforms are concerned, in Dudash’s opinion, local agencies are already doing a good job. 

“I think we’ve got a lot of very, very good officers,” he said. “I think everybody should thank an officer, at least daily. Or wave, instead of looking at them as an opposing force, they should be treated with dignity and respect they deserve, because they risk their butts. I mean it’s scary as anything when you roll up on a call and you have no idea what you’re actually dealing with.”


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