Chapman seeks improvement in police, community relations

Chapman seeks improvement in police, community relations

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

As scrutiny of police-involved shootings intensifies in light of the deaths of unarmed civilians in Ferguson, Mo. and elsewhere, City Councilor John Chapman wants to ensure Alexandria isn’t the next city in the national spotlight.

Chapman said local police must emphasize a community-oriented model of law enforcement, which requires more officers living in Alexandria and greater transparency overall.

“If we look at Ferguson, what kind of takeaways can cities have from that?” Chapman said. “Much of it is incorporating police so that they’re not a foreign body from our community, because we want them — if we can have them — to be citizens.”

The problem of Alexandria officers living elsewhere came up during a city council hearing last weekend, where officers came out to lobby for better pay. Experts argue that if officers live in the jurisdiction where they serve, they are more likely to approach interactions with civilians in a positive manner.

“One of the issues in Ferguson is that virtually none of the officers live in the community they police,” said Capt. Jamie Bartlett. “In Alexandria, the majority of officers cannot afford to live in their own community.

“For the most part, the only officers who live here are those who are brand new, do not have families, or have apartments with reduced rent in exchange for security; or they’re older officers like myself who have owned homes for many years.”

Chapman said that affordable housing organizations once offered cheap housing to officers and other emergency responders but the policy has largely been abandoned as budgets have dwindled over the last few years.

“Citizens and [Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority] board members felt that was a great opportunity to have that engagement with the police and for the police to ensure things were going the appropriate way, but because of financial issues, a lot of those opportunities have gone away,” he said. “It would be a great discussion to have with the folks at ARHA to see if they ever look to do it again and how we on the city side can support that.”

Chapman also thinks equipping officers with body-worn cameras will encourage more positive interactions on the part of law enforcement as well as by civilians in their dealings with officers.

“I think it would be a great teaching tool … When I did my education to become a teacher, we would always be videotaped as a teaching tool,” he said. “They would say, ‘You did X-Y-Z, but this is a better way to do X-Y-Z.’ And it could come for most officers like that, too.

“It’s also a teaching tool for the community as well. If you can publicize interactions and say, ‘This is what happens if someone is under certain situations,’ using real-life conversations with officers, you can teach people how to positively interact with officers in certain situations.”

The U.S. Department of Justice released a report last week, entitled “Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned,” outlining potential benefits of outfitting officers with cameras. The document also gave guidance on how to craft policies regulating the technology.

Officials said the cameras not only promote transparency, but also better behavior by all parties because they know their actions are being recorded.

“Departments that are already deploying body-worn cameras tell us that the presence of cameras often improves the performance of officers as well as the conduct of the community members who are recorded,” officials wrote. “[And] when officers or members of the public break the law or behave badly, body-worn cameras can create a public record that allows the entire community to see what really happened.”

But, as with the issue of officers living within Alexandria, the feasibility of implementing an officer camera program will come down to money, Chapman said.

“I’m starting to get into the research behind that as far as what it would take and how much it would cost,” Chapman said. “Looking at what the state has thrown out there in terms of possible budget cuts [next year], I don’t know how much opportunity will be available within the state, so maybe we should look to the federal level.”