Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Local law enforcement mum on personnel matters involving complaints against officers

(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Unsplash)
(WYDaily file/Courtesy of Unsplash)

Activists across the country are calling for greater transparency in police departments following the death of George Floyd. 

Floyd, a black man who died after a white officer pressed a knee into his neck. The now ex-police officer, Derek Chauvin, had 17 prior misconduct complaints on his record, according to the New York Times. But it wasn’t until a video of the incident appeared that his actions were reprimanded. 

Chauvin is now facing charges in connection with the incident, including second-degree murder. Three other former Minneapolis police officers are also facing charges.

Many argue police departments across the nation need to be more transparent in the complaints filed against their officers.

In James City County, the police department has had two complaints of racial profiling and one complaint of excessive force in the past five years, said Deputy Chief Steve Rubino. However, it is unclear if the public are privy to information, specifically the officers involved, surrounding those complaints.

Stephanie Williams, spokeswoman for the department, said information regarding complaints and personnel violations involving specific officers are considered personnel matters and are not public. The department uses guidance from the county’s Human Resources Department in regards to personnel matters.

“They [police officers] are treated the same as every other county employee,” said Patrick Teague, the county’s director of Human Resources. “They’re still county employees and receive the same privacy as any employee.”

He said it’s general policy for most businesses or organizations to keep personnel matters private. 

Teague pointed out there is a difference between a complaint and a personnel issue. For a complaint against an officer, he said there is a process for the complainant to know the outcome of the complaint but following that, the discipline or personnel activity regarding the complaint will be private. 

“Again, all our employees have a right to privacy,” he said. “That’s not going to change related to which particular function they perform.”

People can request statistics about complaints from the police department but Teague was unsure if information regarding a specific officer could be requested.

Williams did not immediately respond for comment about whether information could be requested regarding a specific officer.

York County

WYDaily tried to get York-Poquoson Sheriff J.D. “Danny” Diggs to chat about the department’s transparency, but he wasn’t available Tuesday, said YPSO spokeswoman Shelley Ward,

Maj. Ronald Montgomery spoke with WYDaily instead.

When asked if the public should have access to complaints against deputies or if YPSO would consider creating a public database to access information about complaints, Montgomery said it would have to be explicit.

“I don’t know if you would be able to do that,” he 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.

He said if the public called asking information about a complaint against a deputy, they would more than likely share the information.

Montgomery said if the sheriff’s office were to do so, they would have to explain each complaint and he’s concerned it would give too much personnel information which is covered under the Freedom of Information Act.

For example, if a deputy on a specific date had a complaint of excessive force, “that’s not really going to tell you what it really was,” he said.

So when it comes to personnel matters, the YPSO does not plan to create a database or publish deputies’ complaint information at this time due to concerns about personnel records protected from the Freedom of Information Act.

“Right now, we are following Virginia law,” Montgomery said. “If the law requires us to do it, then we are going to do what the law requires…when it comes to personnel matters.”

But what about putting a roster of deputies with their name and photo on the YPSO website?

“To a degree we already do something like that,” Montgomery said, adding YPSO posts pictures of new hires and deputies on their social media pages.

While he said most people in York County appreciate law enforcement, there are a few people “who may not have so much affection for law enforcement” and might use the roster as an opportunity to follow the deputies.

“I would say right now we would probably not be willing to do that,” he said.

The sheriff’s office already cautions staff from posting photos of themselves or their family on social media.

“But to put all of the photographs and all of the names in one spot, the answer would be no for security reasons,” Montgomery said.

NAACP

“Our law enforcement here relatively here do a good job but it’s very apparent that there is definitely room to grow,” said Brian Smalls, president of the York-Williamsburg-James City County NAACP chapter,

He was talking about how NAACP evaluates local law enforcement agencies in the Historic Triangle and what they would like to see in terms of transparency.

He noted it can be difficult to get the data and the process involves jumping through a lot of hoops.

“And sometimes that process is more difficult than it should be,” Smalls said.

When they receive calls from people who feel they were targeted or harassed by police, Smalls advises them to file a complaint with the jurisdiction or the police department.

“One of the big problems I think the citizens have is the complaint gets made and they don’t hear anything back,” Smalls said. “If there is an issue that comes up and citizens are making these complaints, they should have some type of assurance that things are happening, that these things are taken care of and they are not just being swept under the rug.”

Another change Smalls would like to see is having a public review board for complaints.

“Many jurisdictions have gone this route when they have these public review boards dealing with issues when they come up with the public,” Smalls said. “And I think that is something in the city of Williamsburg, James City County and even York County, that is something that should be considered.”

“I know it may not be the more popular thing in law enforcement but the reality is that law enforcement works for the public and so there should be things in public to ensure that the public has the type of transparency that is required and is effective,” he added. “We wholeheartedly support any efforts to bring about transparency when it comes to police.”

WYDaily reached out to Williamsburg Police Chief Sean Dunn. He was not immediately available for comment.

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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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