Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Williamsburg Police stats show high volume of African American arrests. ACLU says the chief gave a ‘passing the buck explanation’

Williamsburg Police cruiser (WYDaily file)
Williamsburg Police cruiser (WYDaily file)

People are calling for police departments across the country to look at their own arrest rates of minority individuals and the Williamsburg Police Department is no exception.

Williamsburg Police Chief Sean Dunn recently presented statistics regarding arrest rates and minorities in the area to the City Council. 

Forty-seven percent of arrests in 2019 were African American individuals despite only 14 percent of Williamsburg’s population being black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Out of 408 arrests, 87 were Williamsburg residents. Of those, 79 were for separate individuals.

The highest number of charges in 2019 were for domestic assault, with 13 arrests, followed by driving with a revoked or suspended license with 12 arrests, and possession of marijuana at nine of arrests, according to Dunn’s report.

Those found to be driving on suspended licenses were released on a summons, according to information from Williamsburg Police. Those arrested for possession of marijuana are typically released on a summons.

The remaining charges include:

  • Drug distribution offenses
  • Simple assaults
  • Abduction
  • Child abuse
  • Violation of protective orders
  • Larcenies
  • Illegal firearms, etc

WYDaily asked Dunn whether those numbers should be a concern or show a pattern for the police department, but he did not immediately respond.

Dunn told council members 87 black people arrested were from Williamsburg — the rest were not from the area.

“I feel like that’s passing the buck explanation,” said Jenny Glass, director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

Glass said Dunn is quoting a very specific number and the implication is people are from Hampton and Newport News, picking the closest place with black people.

“Perpetuating the stereotype that inner city folks coming into [the] city and committing crimes,” she added. “I just don’t buy that.”

Glass noted it’s not uncommon in Virginia where there is a small population of black people in the county who represent the larger jail population.

“So they’re not unique,” Glass said. “It’s a statewide problem.”

Glass said the previous commonwealth’s attorney in Arlington County gave a similar explanation when Glass noticed 60 percent of the arrests were black people even though they made up around 10 percent of the population.

“I was looking into if there was any validity why the jail in Arlington County had such a disparate [number] of Black people in it,” Glass said.

“It’s because we arrest a lot of people in D.C.,” Glass said was what the former commonwealth’s attorney told her.

Right before the council ended the meeting and went into closed session, members read an email from Shelby Horner, who commented on the Dunn’s arrest report.

“What do those numbers say to you?” she asked. “To me they say that the Williamsburg police is aggressively over policing black people. It says to me that the Williamsburg Police Department has a race problem and isn’t any different from the Minneapolis police or any of the other police departments being called out right now.”

“You can come to protests and make nice speeches but that doesn’t absolve you from the fact that your own police department is complicit in being racist on duty,” she added. “So I’m saying not on my watch.”

Horner was not immediately available for further comment.

Caleb Rogers, who will be inaugurated to the Williamsburg City Council, said he doesn’t know a lot about the law enforcement discussions that have happened so far. However, he added it’s important to look at the numbers because the area doesn’t want to have a police force that is negatively impacting communities of color.

Pat Dent, former Williamsburg Fire Department Chief and newly elected City Council member, said he can’t speak for the whole council, but he believes Dunn is already looking into the statistics and how they can be more specific moving forward. 

“[Once on council] I would monitor the reports that Chief Dunn provides and he’ll obviously be aware of what those numbers are and if any improvements need to be made,” Dent said. “From a police chief perspective, I’m sure he’s going to work on those and is already working on if [there are] any issues he’s working to correct.”

Mayor Paul Freiling did not immediately respond for comment.

There have been national arguments that increasing diversity in police departments would help to reduce any racial bias. In 2014, President Barack Obama created a task force on 21st century policing that aimed to strengthen community-police relations by making sure law enforcement agencies reflect the diversity of their community, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The task force determined diversity can make law enforcement agencies more open to reform and decrease racial bias.

There are very few minority officers in the Williamsburg Police Department and it’s unclear if there is an initiative to recruit a more diverse pool of officers.

Out of 42 current officers, there are six African Americans, four men and two women. Police spokesman Charles Ericcson said there is also a vacancy the department expects to fill in July, which will bring the department to 43 total officers.

WYDaily also asked Dunn whether diversity in the department was important to creating a less biased police force.

He did not immediately respond.

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Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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