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By Madeline White

“Virginians Speak: A Dialogue on Policing Reform, Community, & Law Enforcement in Virginia” was a jointly sponsored webinar featuring a panel of prominent Virginians in the fields of law enforcement, community engagement, and faith communities for 60 minutes of dialogue, Aug. 11, 2020. The event was co-sponsored by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office and the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Panelists included Attorney General Mark Herring; Bishop Sharma D. Lewis; Sheriff David Decatur, Stafford County; Sheriff Gabriel Morgan, Newport News; and Chief Kenneth Miller, Petersburg Police Department.

Cynthia Hudson, Richmond attorney, acted as moderator for the event and began the webinar with an introduction.

Attorney General Mark Herring thanked all who participated in the event, an event he saw as important and timely.

“We know that black Americans and communities of color experience the criminal justice system differently,” Herring said. “Whether it is in policing or in prosecution, or in reentry, it is undeniable, it is documented, and it is wrong. We cannot have different standards of justice based on the color of your skin. Virginia needs to be a place that has justice and equality, and opportunity guaranteed for everyone.”

Special Session of the General Assembly

Herring noted the General Assembly is meeting next week for a special session. One of the topics being addressed is criminal justice reform with a special emphasis on police reform. Earlier on Aug. 11, Herring did share a few of his priorities.

Some of Herring’s priorities include authorizing the office of Attorney General to do investigations of local departments where there are high numbers of police misconduct or a high number of uses of excessive force as well as modernizing, standardizing and elevating the rigor of police training.

“It really is something the General Assembly should authorize my office to do. Because then when there are incidents of excessive force or police misconduct, someone from the outside who’s competent and has credibility can look at everything that’s going on in the department, identify the patterns, the policies, the practices that are leading to unconstitutional policing, and fix them,” Herring said. “It is an important tool that communities should have to address unconstitutional policing.”

Church’s role as a prophetic voice in community

Bishop Sharma D. Lewis, resident bishop for the Virginia Conference, said she saw the event as a way to begin seeking ways to partner with law enforcement agencies in creating public safety for all.

“I, like many of you, on Memorial Day, witnessed again, another African American man, Mr. George Floyd, while handcuffed and in police custody pleading for his life,” Lewis said. “I was deeply saddened and concerned, not only about his death, but the death of African American men like Ahmaud Arbery and women, Breonna Taylor, at the hands of police officers. I am not criticizing or condemning all police officers, but I’m committed to a dialogue and further strengthening relationships that can lead to more effective policing.”

Following the death of Floyd, Lewis wrote a letter to the Virginia Conference expressing her feelings and challenging the conference to action steps. This letter was shared with Governor Northam and Attorney General Herring.

 “People want truth, trust and transparency,” she said. “It is crucial that we build relationships to prevent the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. I believe the faith community can offer our support and involvement with law enforcement agencies to aid in identifying problems in our communities to collaborate with our national state and local law enforcement agencies, as well as to implement solutions that produce meaningful and timely results for our communities.”

Lewis recognized that some in the denomination especially may ask why she is discussing a police issue and bringing it to the forefront especially in her conference.

“I do believe of course, that we should respect the separation of church and state, but I also want to just reiterate that, as the church, and we know that the church, and specifically as I was raised in the black church, that the church has always been a prophetic voice on key issues in society. We know this because we know that civil rights started out of the church.”

She continued, “As United Methodists, our Social Principles, state that, as disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice and serve as reconcilers of conflict. But lastly, as children of God, as children of faith, we are called to seek peace and pursue it.

“The Scripture I like the most when people wrestle with why I should stay out of the business of politics, I always like to say to them, Micah 6:8. And Micah 6:8 reminds us, what does the Lord require of you? Lord requires of us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Law enforcement share steps toward reform

Sheriff David Decatur

Sheriff David Decatur, Stafford County, shared that the goal of law enforcement was to enhance the quality of life for all people. He mentioned that another focus is reducing the fear of police.

“Even if you’re not a victim of crime but you feel as if you have that fear, it can be debilitating and it can hurt relationships. There are many emotions going on in our world and in our communities and frustration and the fear is one of them,” Decatur said. “If you’re familiar with anyone who’s ever been a victim of a crime, that lasting legacy of being a victim is that fear. Many times people feel that fear and it lasts longer than the injuries.”

Decatur shared that for law enforcement to be effective there must be strong trust.

“We have thousands of ethical, hardworking law enforcement officers who go to work each and every day. And they do a great job and their heart is in the right position, but unfortunately, it only takes one unethical person, one unethical officer that can undo that, and we all know that. That trust is very important and that trust is very important to our democracy.”

Chief Kenneth Miller

Chief Kenneth Miller, Petersburg Police Department, shared he thinks about accreditation with respect to community policing.

“Our police are a fractured community. My community is predominantly African American. And when I came here, there was a number of challenges, but we’ve been, by the grace of God, we’ve been blessed to have overcome those challenges that we do succumb a lot, but it’s been because of the community policing model,” Miller said. “That model is from a top down model. Most of the time, I’ve seen community policing where it’s in groups within an organization or within an agency, or it’s done sporadically or sparse. My philosophy is to do it from the top down. If I do it, if I set the mark, if I hold myself accountable and hold myself to certain standards, it permeates them. I created a leadership formula.

“We’ve got a lot of community support and it’s that collaboration that has made our streets safer. I’m a big proponent of accreditation, statewide. I’m a big point of body cameras, statewide. I’m a big proponent of a centralized or common defensive tactics, and you support protocol on model, statewide.”

In answer to a questions about how the killing of George Floyd became a tipping point for reform efforts across the country, Miller shared what he has seen in his community.

“When I heard, I was in pain. I think there’s misconception. People think that there’s a distaste for police. And I beg to differ,” Miller said. “I can tell you, in my community, we had 13 days of, I don’t like the word protest, I think it demeans people. I like to call them expression. Where people are demonstrating their constitutional rights. And we had 13 days of it. Not one rock was thrown, not one window was broken. I think it’s the time to listen, engage, but it can’t be about politics, it got to be about truth.”

Sheriff Gabriel Morgan

Sheriff Gabriel Morgan, Newport News, shared that he has been in law enforcement for 44 years and has seen how some of the current issues have remained the same since he started his career.

“Most of America really does not understand that there is an ugly truth that law enforcement was the arm of oppression and enforcement of Jim Crow,” Morgan said. “Most Americans dismiss the pleas of the black community because it’s not their experience. And that is the prime example of that is Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests. It was dismissed. It was maligned.

“When protestors came to the street, and by no means do I advocate the violence and the destruction, the first thing that was said was, “Why can’t they demonstrate peacefully?” In [representative] John Lewis’ case, it was peaceful. In Colin Kaepernick, it was peaceful. We first have to acknowledge the truth, even if it is not your experience America. The next thing that we have to do is reimagine law enforcement.”

Morgan used the image of putting a Band-Aid on a shotgun wound as how law enforcement has attempted reform in the past.  He shared reform must involve a reimaging of law enforcement and an acknowledgement that they can’t be all things to all people especially when other factors may be in play such as mental health.

“The question is, what is it that you want out of your police agency? Looking five years from now, what do I want out of the Sheriff’s Office?” he said.

Morgan shared that in Virginia the minimum requirement by the Department of Criminal Justice Systems (DCGS) for training is 400 hours. The academy for his office does 760 hours of training which he said is still not enough.

 “Our partners in Germany, for you to become a police officer, it takes two to four years of training before you’re even allowed out,” Morgan said. “The only thing we have time to do is teach officers how to survive. We teach officers how to be worried and not how to be guardians.”

Morgan shared that in order to decertify a police officer in Virginia, they have to be convicted of a crime and officers are able to go from one agency to another which is something Morgan would want changed. Morgan said training must be enhanced as well as work on legitimacy and accountability.

In the short term, Morgan echoed Miller and shared that accreditation can be worked on.

“I’m the second longest service person on accreditation. There are total of 375 law enforcement agencies in Virginia. Only 136 of them have accreditation either on the state level or the national level. So that’s the only one-third of the agencies. So when the attorney general talks about the process by which we investigate patterns and practices, we all got to get on the same page.”

Morgan emphasized that diversity is a strength in every aspect of American life including in law enforcement.

“We can promote diversity. I don’t want to just check blocks. I’m talking about true diversity. And when I talk about true diversity, it’s not just about color, LGBT. When we talk about community interaction and having people to serve, it looks like our community. It is helpful that diversity is everything, women, black, white, Asian, you name it. Even if they have some sort of limited disability, that would still allow them to serve, there is a place for them.”

Herring closed the one-hour event focusing on the group dynamic of this effort.

“We are at a moment in our history where we’ve got such an opportunity to really move our Commonwealth and our nation, but for us here in Virginia, to move our Commonwealth, to make it a place where justice and equality and opportunity is real for everybody. And I think we all have a role to play, law enforcement, public officials, communities of faith,” he said.

“We have pushed law enforcement to take on responsibilities that were outside their role. They have to be mental health counselors when they encounter someone in a crisis. They have to be addiction specialists when they encounter someone with an addiction. We place them in schools following 9/11,” Herring said. “And so we really have to rethink as communities what we’re asking for from law enforcement, how we can achieve our public safety goals in a way that is fair and equal for everyone. And as we all are engaged in that, and as your attorney general, I promise to work with your community and communities across Virginia to help make sure that Virginia lives up to its promises of justice and equality for all.”

Next steps

Viewers looking for next steps from this conversation are encouraged to reach out to their delegate and let them know that criminal justice and police reform matters to you and what work and action you are hoping to come out from the special session of the General Assembly next week. You can also view the recorded webinar at: https://livestream.com/vaumc/vaspeak.  

Be on the lookout for future events such as this conversation in upcoming conference communications.

-Madeline White is the conference director of Communications.