Incidents highlight local police accountability

Incidents highlight local police accountability

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

Alfred Street Baptist Church Pastor Howard-John Wesley’s congregation was in the midst of a service geared toward young people earlier this month, when word that a New York police officer would not be indicted for his role in the death of an unarmed black suspect spread among church members.

Feelings of frustration and anger mounted quickly, he said.

“The news broke, and there was such outrage, so I asked: What do we do?” he said. “It didn’t seem right to stay in the church and have the service as usual.

“We had about 300 people in the sanctuary who didn’t want to just sit and sing songs and worship. We wanted to put faith into action.”

What happened next highlighted the difference between the actions of Alexandria police and those in areas like Ferguson, Mo. and Cleveland, where reports of officers shooting unarmed black teenagers have dominated national news, Wesley said.

“Within half an hour, people prepared themselves; we had a service of prayer and then hit the streets and made our way to the city courthouse,” he said. “I called the police, and we informed the watch commander what we were doing. They deployed officers to aid and assist us.

“We have a good working relationship with the Alexandria Police Department. They had some concerns, so they shared with us what we would need to do to make sure nobody got hurt and they blocked traffic for us. It was peaceful protest at its best.”

Although the pastor gave local officers high marks for their approach to community-oriented policing, he said it is important to be proactive and vigilant on the issue.

“We have to remind ourselves that we can’t assume any community is safe on this,” Wesley said. “We’re grateful this hasn’t happened in Alexandria, but people didn’t think it could happen in Ferguson or New York City or in Cleveland. It can happen anywhere, so in order to protect Alexandria so it doesn’t happen, we have to continue building positive relationships with police officers.”

And city leaders are doing just that. City Councilor John Chapman restated his support for outfitting local officers with body-worn cameras, in light of President Barack Obama’s proposal to provide federal funds to help local jurisdictions buy the new technology.

Advocates argue that body cameras will improve the behavior both of police officers and the civilians they encounter, as well as promote transparency by providing a video account of interactions between officers and residents.

“[Obama’s proposal] brought it more into reality for us and in my own personal thinking,” Chapman said. “The issue has always been funding for us. Looking at the local budget, it’s very tough right now. It’s very tough to do all locally.”

But Mayor Bill Euille said that while he supports body-worn cameras in principle, he wants a broader initiative to bolster the city’s community-oriented policing.

“I don’t believe they’re the end-all cure-all solution,” he said. “[I] think all of these things need to be looked at holistically. From my perspective, the question is: What are our needs in Alexandria?

“I would like to see a focus on what additional support is needed for our police department, whether it be more manpower, more training or more technology.”

The leadership of the Alexandria Police Department also is actively looking into body cameras and other ways to bolster community policing. Spokeswoman Crystal Nosal said the department is preparing a paper and presentation for city council outlining potential policies, if councilors opt to purchase the technology.

Police Chief Earl Cook said in a statement that there needs to be a broad public discussion of the issue to determine how and when police implement a body camera program.

“This technology is going to be a part of police work going forward,” Cook said. “However, it is up to city leaders and our community, as well as the police department, to determine the capacity.”

Whether the city pursues body cameras or not, Chapman stressed that what is important is continuing the conversation on how to maintain positive relationships between police and residents.

“I do think that with the general, overall community policing model, as we dialogue more with the community and the community dialogues more with the police department, you get a better relationship because of that interaction,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt us to have the conversation. It improves our ability to communicate within our own communities.”