GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin recently stood before a Chesterfield County police car and panned opponent Terry McAuliffe as being weak on crime in a campaign video that also featured on-duty county police officers.
Department policy prohibits vehicles from being used for political purposes and allows officers to participate in political activity only when off duty.
But for this video, the Youngkin campaign negotiated terms for a scheduled ride-along with police last month and filmed the candidate. The campaign posted a video of the ride-along on Youngkin’s Twitter account Aug. 9.
Violent crime is on the rise. The murder rate is at a 20-year high, and Virginians feel less safe. As governor, I'll stand up for law enforcement, make sure they have the funding they need, and work to make Virginia the safest state in America. pic.twitter.com/Mdlgv3ANol— Glenn Youngkin (@GlennYoungkin) August 9, 2021
The video included footage of the Chesterfield Police Department, Youngkin riding inside a car with an officer, and Youngkin walking with officers outside.
Chesterfield Police Chief Jeffrey Katz said in an interview the department made no accommodation for Youngkin that it wouldn’t for any citizen, candidate or elected official.
“If they have a desire to learn more about the Police Department, policing profession, the manner in which we serve our community, our practice is to embrace those people and to show them as much as we possibly can,” he said.
Katz said he viewed the video before it was published and told the Youngkin campaign he didn’t like it because Youngkin talks about crime going up in Virginia, while crime in Chesterfield, Katz said, is down.
“We’re doing really, really well in our county and our Police Department, so when I have a political candidate who’s in a car that’s marked Chesterfield County police, and that candidate is talking about skyrocketing crime in Virginia ... I don’t think that the video reflected favorably upon our brand as an organization,” Katz said. “I thought the video missed the mark.”
Youngkin has made crime a top issue in his campaign, calling out former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s record in TV ads and touting support from elected sheriffs across the state. McAuliffe, a Democrat, has run ads in response featuring sheriffs who support him. Sheriffs, unlike police chiefs, are partisan, elected officials.
Public records obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request show that the Youngkin campaign made several special requests for his ride-along.
A campaign staffer sent Chesterfield police an email saying Youngkin’s schedule wouldn’t allow him to ride for an entire shift. The campaign requested 20 minutes of driving and 20 minutes of walking in a designated area.
The campaign also asked if it could mount a camera in the car to film during the ride-along.
“Instead of responding to calls, we’d like to go to a specific area of town where Glenn could walk with the officer/deputy and learn about crime in the area. Maybe the area is [a] high drug trafficking area or an area where there is gang activity. Press would get footage of this and maybe we mic glenn up during it too,” the campaign email to police said.
Katz said the officer in the video was on duty. Records showed Youngkin and the officers were in the area of the Rollingwood and Pocoshock Ridge apartments off Chippenham Parkway. Police sent the Youngkin campaign news releases about three shootings, two of them fatal, in those areas since February.
“The Youngkin campaign doesn’t dictate what our patrol officers do. If our officer was requested or summoned to a call our officer would respond to that call,” Katz said.
Although Chesterfield’s ride-along regulations, which are signed by participants, say cameras and voice recorders are prohibited unless the chief grants prior approval, Katz said filming by any ride-along participant is allowed and he has never approved or not approved anyone filming on a ride-along.
“If someone’s exercising their First Amendment right in a government vehicle to speak freely, to videotape their time in the car or whatever, we’re not in a position to tell someone they can’t do that,” he said. “It would actually be a civil rights violation to inhibit someone’s First Amendment rights.”
Records show a police supervisor emailed the Youngkin campaign on Aug. 6: “Hope everything went well yesterday. Let me know if you need any follow up. Thanks again.”
Youngkin staffer Devin O’Malley responded: “Great event. Thank you for all your help getting it organized.”
O’Malley also emailed the police supervisor and a police spokesperson on Aug. 9 with a draft of the campaign video, writing: “Just want to make sure you all are ok with this.” There is no record of a written response from Chesterfield police.
O’Malley told the Richmond Times-Dispatch he emailed police the video at their request because they wanted to see it before it went online.
Nationally, police sometimes draw scrutiny over political involvement.
In 2014, a Democratic candidate for Maryland governor was criticized for using uniformed Baltimore police officers in campaign ads attacking his Republican opponent, The Baltimore Sun reported. A department policy prohibited officers from appearing in uniform in political ads.
In 2018, the campaign of U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, was mocked for using campaign aides in costumes to play police officers in a digital campaign ad. Wexton’s campaign director said at the time that the campaign had seen other campaigns criticized for putting uniformed police in ads and wanted to avoid that controversy.
Some Democrats in 2020 expressed concerns about police bias in favor of President Donald Trump, such as an officer in New York City chanting “Trump 2020” via his loudspeaker and an officer in Miami wearing a Trump face mask at a voting location.
Policing and support for law enforcement is a top issue in this year’s statewide campaigns following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 by Minneapolis police, increased scrutiny of police, and a rise in crime rates in some American cities.
Youngkin is touting an endorsement from the Virginia Law Enforcement Sheriffs Association and endorsements from more than 50 sheriffs.
In the Richmond area, Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard, a Republican, appears in a Youngkin TV ad endorsing him.
McAuliffe is running a TV ad featuring Henrico Sheriff Alisa Gregory, a Democrat, defending McAuliffe’s record on law enforcement issues.
Youngkin and sheriffs who support him accuse McAuliffe of turning his back on law enforcement by embracing “radical elements” of his party, and say Youngkin would be a strong supporter of law enforcement. Youngkin supports legal principles that prevent civil liability for officers who shoot people, while McAuliffe supports reforms that would allow civil lawsuits to proceed against officers if they broke the law.