Since the May 25 death of George Floyd, law enforcement agencies across the country are being scrutinized for how they handle complaints of racial bias, abuse and excessive force or police brutality.
Floyd died after a white officer pressed a knee into his neck. While the officers involved in the incident have all been charged, outrage has sparked once it was discovered the now former officer who had his knee pressed on Floyd’s neck had at least 17 complaints for misconduct, according to the New York Times.
Activist groups across the nation have called for a look into how police departments handle and investigate complaints against their own, especially those with racial components.
While the Historic Triangle might seem small, the three law enforcement agencies in the area also have various methods of handling complaints against their officers.
James City County Police
There have been two complaints of racial profiling and one complaint of excessive force in the past five years, said Deputy Chief Steve Rubino.
Rubino said the two complaints of racial profiling were investigated at the supervisory level and the internal affairs coordinator reviewed the information. The coordinator will look to see if there is any evidence to support the complaint and make a decision based on the information provided.
“The most common time we will hear a complaint of racial profiling is at a traffic stop,” he said. “So when we start looking at it, we see, for example, that if someone gets stopped at 11 p.m. for speeding, the officer may or may not issue a summons. But later on, the individual driving the car will say it was stopped because they’re black, but it was 11 p.m. and the car had tinted windows. When we see that information, we can believe the stop was made because of a violation and the officer couldn’t have known who was driving the car.”
When a complaint claiming discrimination is made against an officer, the department will look at how many summons the officer has issued and how many of those were to minorities to see if there is a pattern.
Rubino said some can be handled at a supervisory level while others are referred to internal affairs and then investigated by individuals with more specialized training. Those cases referred to internal affairs are typically more serious, meaning they involve a complaint of a criminal nature against an officer.
For example, Rubino said, if there is an officer-involved shooting, two investigations will happen.
One is an internal investigation done at the administrative level of the police department. That’s done to make sure officers’ actions are in compliance with the department’s policies and state law.
Secondly, if a criminal violation is involved then the department would request the Virginia State Police open an investigation. A commonwealth’s attorney from another district would also take part in that process.
During that time, the state of the officer’s employment depends on the situation. Rubino said typically the officer will be put on administrative duties but there is the possibility for an officer to be suspended with pay. The decision on which action to take is typically made while consulting the Human Resources department with James City County.
There have been no complaints of racial profiling or police brutality in the past five years, said Williamsburg Police spokesman John Heilman. However, there have been four complaints of excessive force in the past five years, two of which were unfounded, one was exonerated and the other most recent complaint is still pending.
Heilman said the department does not have a separate internal affairs unit, instead all of the complaints go through the chief’s office for assignment. Typically, non-ranking officers will be investigated by supervisory officers and supervisory officers will be investigated by command staff.
The officer in question will be notified and can be placed on either regular duty or paid administrative leave. The officer’s status during the investigation depends on the circumstances, Heilman said.
York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office
Shelley Ward, spokeswoman for the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office, said there were four complaints of excessive force within the last five years: One was made by a resident and the other three by YPSO supervisors.
She said there was also one allegation of racial profiling in May when woman called the sheriff’s office and claimed a deputy had called her son “boy.” The body camera footage showed the deputy said “bud” and the complaint was considered unfounded.
Ward said there have been no complaints involving police brutality in the last five years.
Ward said it depends on the severity of the allegation to determine who investigates the complaint.
“If we have a complaint on a deputy, it typically goes to their supervisors,” she said of external complaints. “And if its an internal, it goes to the major.”
She said the sheriff’s office posted their policies about complaints on their website Wednesday.
“Because this is something that obviously because of something that happened in Minneapolis, we had a lot of people ask what you’re asking us,” Ward said. “Our goal is to end up with a majority of manual online…we’re trying to be as transparent as possible.”
Maj. Ronald Montgomery provided further information.
“Excessive force is anything that is beyond what is necessary in order to handle the situation,” he said.
And it also depends on the circumstances.
“It depends on the circumstances and we have to review each one individually,” Montgomery said. “See, our policy is our supervisors here are required to just randomly select three videos a month. It gives us the opportunity to make sure people are using the body cameras correctly and see… how they are interacting with the public.”
A deputy being rude during a traffic stop is the most common complaint, he said.
Every time someone makes a complaint, the first thing the sheriff’s office does is look at the body camera.
Sometimes the deputies “didn’t realize the tone of their voice” and “how they were affecting the citizens”, Montgomery said. “We use it as a training tool.”
One example was a woman who was arrested for intoxication. She called two weeks after her arrest, alleging the deputy stole $190 from her purse, Montgomery said. After watching the body camera footage, she withdrew her complaint.
And there are discussions, especially now that police and civilian interactions are front and center of the national debate.
“A lot of the things that happened nationally we discuss them with our deputies here,” Montgomery said. “We play it in meetings, we have discussions about it…what we’d do differently here.”
He said deputies have deescalation and crisis intervention team training to help them deal with anyone who is emotionally distraught as well as other courses to help them improve their communication skills. He did not elaborate on the other courses.
The first excessive force complaint was from a resident in May 2018. Montgomery said the deputy was using language that was not appropriate while arresting someone for a DUI. He described the deputy’s behavior as “getting loud” and “obviously angry.”
“Basically their complaint was the way that the deputy talked to them,” he said.
The deputy received a written reprimand.
Montgomery said a written reprimand has some effect on the deputy’s career and is more serious than verbal counseling, where the supervisor talks with the deputy about his or her behavior. Those who receive written reprimands can have their promotions affected, too.
“The next step after that is days off without pay,” he said, adding the next step is termination.
The rest of the complaints were internal: Two were in January and the third was February. Both outcomes were verbal counseling.
“The two in January were basically for the same thing that the supervisor saw when he or she was looking at the video, determined that the deputies’ conversation with the people they were taking complaints from didn’t meet our standard,” he said.
He said the sheriff’s office uses Guardian Tracking for complaints that “meet certain criteria” but would not elaborate on what the criteria was.
A determination that a deputy needs verbal counseling may stem from the deputy showing up to work late or even missing court, Montgomery said.
While verbal counseling is noted in the deputy’s files, there is no description of the incident and Montgomery would have to speak with the supervisors to find out what happened.
“It’s a pretty generic thing” he said. “It will simply say verbal counseling. This just tells me this person had these two verbal counseling.. and if I need more information, I simply go back to the lieutenant to see what the verbal counseling are.”
The third internal complaint was a larceny arrest for shoplifting.
“During the course of an arrest, nobody was injured but based on the body camera video, we didn’t believe the deputy needed to use the force that he did,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery said that wasn’t enough to initiate a written reprimand.
“The only thing that I recall was the officer used a little bit more force than that was required by an arrest,” he said.
“I think we were more concerned that he was doing this when he was angry,” Montgomery said. “The person arrested I recall was a little mouthy and the deputy lost control…and we had a verbal counseling over that.”
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