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In first year on the job, Henrico's police chief is working to increase transparency and strengthen community relationships
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In first year on the job, Henrico's police chief is working to increase transparency and strengthen community relationships

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When Rodney King was beaten within inches of his life by Los Angeles police in March 1991, Eric English was about two years into working as a Richmond police officer.

Even as a police officer himself, English viewed the verdict for the four L.A. officers as “mind-boggling,” and he still does today. Despite a video of the beating taken by a resident and a trial on assault charges, the officers were acquitted in state court.

“When Rodney King occurred, I think law enforcement and the justice system itself missed its mark,” English said in an interview. “I think if that had turned out differently, we may not have had, you know, your Michael Brown, your Philando Castile.”

English, who in September will reach his one-year mark as Henrico County’s police chief, has worked to increase the department’s transparency and strengthen community relationships. He noted that he publishes crime statistics online and updates department policies, including holding officers more accountable with their body cameras. He has a use-of-force review board and a chief advisory team, both of which have resident members.

English has published nearly 20 internal policies online, and in May he hired a civilian employee to the department’s new position of disciplinary review manager.

Additional bias training is required for his officers, and some are engaging in advanced de-escalation trainings. New recruits are being taught the history of policing.

“You never talked about the history of policing,” English said. “Policing back in the day was very, very abusive to certain communities, especially communities of color. We cannot deny that did occur. You still have people feeling the remnants of what has taken place in our profession.”

Henrico’s Black, Latino and Asian residents make up nearly half of the county’s population. Yet only 35% of the department’s total workforce and 25% of sworn police officers are people of color, according to the department’s website.

The only way to build trust between police and their communities, English said, is to acknowledge the past and make it clear to residents that “we’re going to be different, we are going to be better [and] we are going to be more inclusive.”

A police spokesman, Lt. Matt Pecka, said he is aware of only one incident this year in which a Henrico officer fired his gun during an encounter with the public. On June 23, two men were exchanging gunfire at Copper Mill Apartments and a Henrico officer fired a weapon during the incident. One man was wounded, but Pecka said it’s still unclear whether he was struck by the officer’s gun.

County Supervisor Tyrone Nelson said that after centuries of mistrust with certain communities and police, the only way to build relationships is through trust. Nelson said English is committed to traveling around this summer to Nelson’s district in eastern Henrico, where many Black residents live.

Encouraged by the chief’s actions, Nelson said the county needs to do a better job of recruiting officers of color, something he hopes will be done under English. The percentage of officers of color in the department has increased from 20% to 25% since 2018.

English is also working toward speaking with every single one of his 860 employees, something Nelson highlighted as a great commitment. English had spoken to about 320 officers as of June 15.

English, who is Black, took the helm in Henrico as the nationwide racial reckoning was underway last summer. Activists began to demand slashing funding for police departments and/or dismantling law enforcement entirely, in order to drastically reshape public safety in response to police brutality, including the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

English recalled speaking at a protest last summer in Harrisonburg when he was that city’s chief. In front of nearly 500 residents, English said he answered every single question about the current climate of policing.

“I think, as a police chief, you owe it to citizens to make sure you answer their questions, and that’s what I tried to do,” English said. “Sometimes it’s not always going to be comfortable for you, but I think I do owe it to citizens to make sure they get an understanding of what we are all about.”

While Henrico resident Chlo’e Edwards is grateful for the department’s community engagement and the implementation of body cameras, she said it falls short of achieving systemic change.

At the age of 14, Edwards ran away from home to escape abuse. She remembers a Henrico County police officer driving her back home and saying, “I used to be a little child like you. I used to be rebellious, and I learned to be quiet.”

Edwards is Black, and the officer was white.

A lifelong resident of Henrico County, graduating from J.R. Tucker High School and becoming the president of the Black Lives Matter 804 coalition, Edwards has held on to that experience with the Henrico police officer ever since.

“This is why I believe we need to transform our institution so that racially biased policing isn’t showing up when it comes to how community members should be served,” Edwards said.

An advocate for establishing a civilian review board in Henrico, Edwards was disappointed when, after receiving a third-party invite to one of English’s roundtables, the potential board wasn’t discussed.

Instead of roundtables, Edwards would rather see the chief directly engage with residents to seek out solutions.

“Police are here to serve the community, and in order to do so, they must champion solutions that impact marginalized communities as well,” Edwards said.

Growing up in the small town of Efland, N.C., English said he never had a bad encounter with police. Even so, his mother was worried for him to have a career in law enforcement. As a longtime officer, English has found himself in dangerous situations, but said he has never fired a gun on anyone.

After graduating from the University of Richmond with a criminology degree in 1989, English became a patrol officer with the Richmond Police Department, eventually becoming a deputy chief in the city. After 29 years, he became the city of Harrisonburg’s chief of police for two years, until taking over the helm in Henrico last fall.

When joining Richmond’s force, English didn’t anticipate a career in local policing. He had his eyes set on joining the Federal Bureau of Investigation after speaking to an agent in college. A college basketball player, FBI agents spoke to English and teammates before each season, urging them not to get caught up in point-shaving and gambling.

The agent told English he first would need law enforcement experience, leading him to Richmond. Two months on the job with the RPD, English knew he was where he belonged.

Fairfield District resident Samantha Thompson, who supports a civilian review board and is a member of the chief’s advisory board, is optimistic of the changes being made under Chief English.

As an advisory member, Thompson provides feedback on various department policies and also brings concerns, including a previous lack of transparency regarding department data. English now publishes crime statistics online.

“Now whether the data looks good or not is one thing, but the fact that he’s provided full transparency in the data collection is great,” Thompson said.

Available data include real-time reports of crime incidents, arrests and active police calls and crime data, which cover annual crime reports from 2015 to 2020, yearly accomplishment reports and internal affairs complaint data for the past three years.

County Supervisor Pat O’Bannon, a Republican, met with English soon after his hire to talk about department weaknesses, including the website and not being transparent with data.

“Chief English was ready and immediately moved forward with good changes,” O’Bannon said. “I was happy to hear that Chief English immediately jumped to fix the weak spots.”

In 2020, Henrico’s police internal affairs division investigated 112 complaints, 64 of which were filed by residents, according to county data.  Of the 112 complaints, 61 were classified as “sustained,” meaning that the allegation was supported by evidence. Nineteen of the total complaints involved police responding to resistance. Of those, two were deemed "justified," meaning the response to resistance was found to be appropriate.

In 2019, there were 122 complaints, including 80 citizen complaints. In 2018, the 137 complaints that were filed were not specified as citizen or internal.

While it is rare that the department would publicize the actions taken against an individual officer, English said, a recent change to the department’s Code of Conduct policy includes a matrix that can trace discipline handed down to officers who face a complaint. While there is a range of discipline for an officer, the matrix doesn’t pinpoint the exact punishment, rather the range for a particular infraction.

English did say the department could eventually publish exact punishments for officers: “I’m always open to new ideas, and it may be something we look at down the line.”

In the week of June 14 alone, five department policies were updated, including one involving the department’s body-worn cameras. English now asks his officers to turn their cameras on the second they receive a call, as the cameras take about 30 seconds to buffer before actual recording begins. Officers’ cameras are now being randomly checked to ensure they are being turned on.

Two additional policies, response to resistance — also known as use of force — and vehicular pursuits, were updated the following Monday, June 21.

Nelson, a Democrat, who pulled plans to establish a civilian review board after he was stonewalled by his Republican colleagues, is impressed with the level of accountability English is holding his officers to, including randomly checking body cameras and having citizens on internal boards.

“A civilian review board is something I would still like to have, but I respect the fact that the chief is including citizens in use-of-force situations.”

Edwards would like to see a civilian review board established in Henrico. BLM 804 is holding a rally to advocate for such a board on July 27 when the County Board of Supervisors meets.

A direct component of a civilian review board, Edwards said, is democracy and justice. Therefore, if both the Board of Supervisors and police department believe in justice, they should support such a board, Edwards said.

“While the civilian review board will require the [police] department and supervisors to put power in the hands of the people … this is what democracy is truly about,” Edwards said. “It’s time for them to do the right thing. The people have spoken.”

jnocera@timesdispatch.com Twitter: @jessmnocera

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