Transparency in law enforcement.
That seems to be one of the top demands resonating across the nation from protest groups following the may death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Here in Williamsburg and James City County, a new justice group wants the same for local law enforcement, starting with the creation of a civilian review board.
“Our goal is to try and get some reform in the criminal justice system,” said Jurrand Summerville, a member of the WJCC Coalition for Community Justice. “Our goal is to work with law enforcement.”
Summerville, a software engineer at Mission Lane, said the group wants some oversight with civilians reviewing questionable police interactions.
The group says as it currently stands, the only ones who have a say in all things cop is the police chief.
“We’re really just trying to iron the details to see what the citizens review board would look like before we blow up and really get things going,” Summerville said.
The coalition was founded June 6 and currently has 32 members from different community organizations, including the Village Initiative and Williamsburg Action.
Summerville said they decided to focus on Williamsburg And James City County because the group just needed a plan to start and most of their members are from the area.
Brandon Waltrip, a defense attorney at Waltrip & Campbell and member of the coalition, said most in the community feel there is a lack of transparency when there are issues and would like to see a review board to independently handle complaints against police.
He said based on his research, having a review board benefits residents and law enforcement.
“I think we have a lot of very good police officers,” Waltrip said. “A majority of police officers reside in James City County or the city of Williamsburg…so they have a vested interest in the outcome of cases.”
Waltrip said the idea is to have an independent investigation of the complaints from a board of community members, which can include church leaders, defense attorneys, the NAACP and the Village Initiative.
He said the Board of Supervisors in Fairfax had created a commission to study the issue of racial disparity, policing and police conduct and there is probably a need for a commission here, too.
“Ultimately if we are going to have transparency and accountability, we need to have someone from outside the police department,” he added.
Waltrip had informal conversations with the localities but did not elaborate.
“It’s refreshing, in spite of it being, maybe not being for the best initial reasoning, but it is refreshing to see the tremendous interest in local law enforcement today,” said Williamsburg Police Chief Sean Dunn. “So I’m not exactly sure what the perceived issues are with Williamsburg or the specific outcomes that the group is looking for other than a civilian review type board.”
Dunn said he hopes the group can find a solution that works best so the police department can best serve the community.
“I look forward to having the opportunity to meet with the group and to share with the group the many wonderful reform minded things the Williamsburg Police Department currently has and over the years have successfully rolled out to ensure that we are serving the community the best we can,” the chief said.
Dunn admitted the department can “certainly improve” and encourages residents to share their input.
“We can’t be our very best without the feedback from the community,” he added.
He said the department recently posted an update on its current policies.
Mayor Doug Pons was not immediately available for comment.
James City County
“My view on citizen review panels is a difficult one,” said James City County Police Chief Brad Rinehimer, noting he is not opposed to the group. “My personal stance is I don’t know how often it would be utilized for James City County.”
He said James City County Police don’t get many complaints and he is not sure how effective the board would be.
“I think it would be just a challenge to keep those boards productive and useful over the course of time,” he said.
Rinehimer said a scheduled meeting with the group did not pan out — Waltrip had emailed him a letter with several proposals but he had not had a conversation with the group.
James City County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jim Icenhour said he has not met with Waltrip either.
He said Waltrip was interested in meeting but wanted to get better organized first. But Icenhour had a general idea the group was looking at community justice issues.
“I’m always willing to meet with any of these groups,” he said. “We need to make sure we are addressing a need in the community. I’m not convinced there would be a whole lot for them to do.”
Icenhour said he spoke with the police chief on June 11 for more than an hour about the use of force. In the last 25 years, the department only had three officer involved shootings.
One was in 1995 and involved a wanted person, a foot pursuit, Rinehimer said. The suspect was hiding behind some bushes and shot the officer in the hand. The officer returned fire and shot the suspect.
“The officer was cleared of any criminal or administrative action,” Rinehimer said.
The second was in 1997.
“My recollection in the ’97 incident, there was a bank robbery and the suspect vehicle description was given out,” he said.
Rinehimer said the officer found the vehicle, which did not stop until it got stuck in the mud on a dirty road. The suspect got out of the vehicle and the officer told the man he was under arrest. But the suspect kept coming toward the officer and “kept reaching behind his back like he had a gun,” Rinehimer said.
The officer saw “something black in his pocket” thought the suspect had a gun and shot the suspect in the hand and elbow.
The third was in 2013 at an assisted living facility in response to an assault call, Rinehimer said.
“The offender came after the officer and there was a struggle,” he said.
The suspect ran the officer over with his vehicle, got out of the car and came over to the officer, Rinehimer added. The officer fired and killed the suspect.
“That officer was also cleared of any wrongdoing,”Rinehimer said.
The officer suffered a broken pelvis and hip.
“It’s really a phenomenal record compared to other places in the country,” Icenhour said. “It is different here, things are different here.”
Icenhour said the police department has a new program, Not on My Watch, where officers are obligated to other officers’ behavior.
“We’re always open to talk to folks in the community,” Icenhour said.” We just need to make sure what we are being asked to look at is legitimate.”
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