Increased emphasis on communication between officers on the street and the residents they serve will be among the priorities for the Henrico County Division of Police under the leadership of its new chief, Col. Eric English, who began work Monday after taking the oath of office.
“As we face difficulties in our communities, in policing, and we talk about police reform, relationships with our citizens are of upmost importance,” English said in remarks to county leaders and others who attended his installation ceremony at Henrico’s government complex.
English, 53, a former deputy chief for the Richmond Police Department who most recently served as Harrisonburg’s police chief, said that during his time in the Shenandoah Valley he was once asked by a professor at Blue Ridge Community College, “What are you looking for in new recruits?”
“I said, ‘Give me somebody that can talk,’” English said. “We can work on other things, but if you can talk, that’s half the battle. Some of the things that we’re missing is sometimes we don’t know how to talk to people. So one of the things we’re going to make sure we’re working on in our recruitment efforts ... is communication.”
The young people now joining police agencies rely heavily on technology to communicate, English said, “and so those one-on-one conversations don’t take place like they used to. So we have to be really, really mindful as we move forward as a police organization” that interpersonal relationships are key to establishing a rapport with the community.
“It has to be a culture within our organization,” he added. “It has to be something that we need to prescribe to each and every day. And our communications can’t just be at the top. That’s easy to do, because we don’t respond to calls for service to have those conversations. But what are we doing before that happens? That’s where it comes into play.”
In introducing English to spectators on Monday, County Manager John A. Vithoulkas said perhaps one of the best decisions that county leaders made in a year marked by many challenges was the decision to “bring Eric English back home to Henrico County to fill the No. 1 spot as chief of police.”
English has owned a home in Henrico since 1994, where he raised his two children who are now adults. He succeeds Col. Humberto “Hum” Cardounel Jr., who announced in June his plans to retire after four years at the helm.
English is the department’s first Black police chief; Cardounel, of Cuban descent, was the first Latino leader.
Vithoulkas noted English’s “impressive background” in a law enforcement career that has spanned more than three decades. “On an executive level, he’s literally done it all,” Vithoulkas said.
“But that, ladies and gentlemen, is not [why] he’s best for Henrico County,” he said. “This man was chosen because he’s in the community, because he’s visible, because he listens, because he builds relationships and trust, and he expects his officers to do the same. At a time when our community yearns for protection, for fairness and for justice, I know we have the right person leading the charge.”
The leadership change comes amid ongoing protests across the nation over police use of force and other issues. The Henrico Board of Supervisors is considering the creation of a civilian oversight panel for its police department. Three of the five board members have said they generally support the idea, but the county is awaiting legislative action by the General Assembly on a series of related bills before moving forward.
Vithoulkas said the county received 40 applications for the chief’s job, and 10 of those people were granted interviews. English “stood head and shoulders over everybody in that pool,” he said.
Prior to becoming Harrisonburg’s police chief in 2018, English spent nearly all of his career in Richmond. Beginning as a patrol officer in the city not long after graduating from the University of Richmond as a criminal justice major in 1989, English became a deputy chief for the city’s police department in 2011. He played basketball for the Spiders and was a well-respected high school basketball official in the Richmond area for 15 years.
“One of the things I believe in is being purposeful,” English said. “When I talk about being purposeful, I talk about being intentional about what we’re trying to do. We have to be intentional about what we’re trying to accomplish in going about our day-to-day operation.”
Several members of Henrico’s Board of Supervisors who attended Monday’s ceremony expressed confidence in English’s abilities and looked forward to working with him.
“You have a great reputation,” Tuckahoe District Board member Patricia O’Bannon told English, “and we’re counting on that.”