POWHATAN – Three of Powhatan’s top law enforcement officials recently gathered virtually to answer some of the community’s pressing questions in the midst of the nation’s current unrest.

The Powhatan chapter of the NAACP and the Powhatan County Democratic Committee (PCDC) hosted a Criminal Justice Town Hall on June 18 and invited sheriff Brad Nunnally, commonwealth’s attorney Richard “Dickie” Cox, and deputy commonwealth’s attorney Rob Cerullo to sit in on a moderated discussion of some of the most prominent questions surrounding the current state of law enforcement and how they pertain to Powhatan County.

Andrew D. Snead, NAACP vice president, and Mike Asip, chair of the PCDC, moderated the discussion, which centered on questions submitted by local residents.

The almost 90-minute discussion covered a wide range of topics, including use of excessive force, civilian review boards, cultural and diversity training, de-escalation training, defunding law enforcement, the demographics of Powhatan’s law enforcement offices, transparency of information available to the public, school resource officers (SROs), mental health evaluations of law enforcement, and more.

“This is such an important topic for this time because, in the wake of the death of George Floyd – the murder of George Floyd – we must come together to have a dialogue around the big questions that our nation is asking, that our region is asking, amid the amazing demonstrations and participation we are seeing from across a diverse community to address racism. That brings us to criminal justice and racial justice issues, and we want to have a frank discussion among our community,” Asip said.

The purpose of the town hall meeting was to establish an intentional dialogue between Powhatan residents and those who are sworn to protect it, Snead continued. The goal was to tackle the perceptions, realities, and expectations of both.

Those who wish to view the town hall, the full video can be found at https://us02web.zoom.us/rec/share/6PdbM46zzH1JG4nguHPSdos9PKjpaaa8gSVI_vsKyRqvHFLLZcAVIyOIeQYppRus. It is also linked on the Powhatan Today Facebook page.

8 Can’t Wait

The discussion began with Snead asking about Powhatan’s current law enforcement practices in light of “8 Can’t Wait,” a campaign that calls for eight immediate steps the campaign’s organizers say will dramatically decrease police violence. The policies are: banning chokeholds and strangleholds, banning shooting at moving vehicles, exhausting all alternatives before shooting, requiring that all use of force be reported, requiring a warning before shooting, requiring officers to stop another officer from using excessive force, and limiting the types of force and/or weapons that can be used to respond to specific types of resistance.

The sheriff’s office has policies in place and a culture in the office that address all eight of those issues, Nunnally said. In the last four and a half years he has been in office, the sheriff’s office has had 12,623 enforcement actions/encounters, such as an arrest being made, a ticket was written, or some type of enforcement was taken. That is not counting the well over 30,000 encounters his office has had with the public in that time, he said.

“Of that 12,623 that required us to use enforcement action, we have zero complaints of excessive force in this county. I am proud of that statistic. That doesn’t mean that we won’t have one tomorrow. But what it does mean is we have a culture in this office that it will not be tolerated, and if there is an excessive force complaint, it will be investigated,” Nunnally said.

He pointed to a recent case on May 3 where a man accused of shooting more than 300 rounds of ammunition into the area around his house was shot by a deputy when he began turning his weapon in the direction of law enforcement officers. The multijurisdictional grand jury controlled the proceedings investigating the officer-involved shooting, not Nunnally’s office or Cox’s office.

“The citizens of this county and the other counties that are involved in that grand jury cleared my officer and decided it was a justifiable shooting. And I think that is the proper way to investigate excessive force or, ultimately, deadly force,” Nunnally said.

As far as the duty to intervene, Nunnally said his office does not tolerate dishonesty or cowardice, and to “not intervene is cowardice.”

Deputies are only allowed to use chokeholds as deadly force, and they are only allowed to use deadly force to protect themselves from deadly force, Nunnally said.

“Chokeholds are forbidden unless deadly force is being used against you and that is the only thing you can do to keep from dying or being severely injured. We do not train people to put their knees on the back of people’s necks. We don’t kneel on people. It is not acceptable,” he said.

A moving vehicle will not be shot at except as a last resort to save the officer’s life or the lives of others, he said, giving the example of someone driving into a crowd of demonstrators.

Training

At various points in the discussion, Nunnally was asked about different kinds of training and certifications those in his office are required to undergo.

Since people come in all shapes and sizes and are sometimes more physically imposing than an officer, part of the training Powhatan deputies receive is that sometimes it is better to disengage than continue to fight. He talked about sending extra deputies on a call with the reasoning that the more officers that are there, the less force and the less chance of injury they will have.

In 2016, a policy about making crisis intervention training mandatory was being considered. While that didn’t happen, his office made the decision to send everyone who works with the public in uniform to undergo that training. He also had some of his deputies become instructors in the subject, which is a week-long training involving mental health professionals and use of force professionals in law enforcement. They train on how to use words rather than immediate contact or force in a situation.

“It is to teach sometimes that our words and what we say can affect the outcome rather than immediately going hands-on. … We believe that the minimal amount of force is the legal amount of force,” he said.

A few of his deputies have gone through or are going through a certification program through the Virginia Sheriff’s Association, Nunnally said.

The sheriff’s office has cultural diversity training at both the academy and local office level, and it is a regular topic of discussion among his deputies, Nunnally said. He said they have discussions every three to four months for meetings on his expectations regarding different aspects of law enforcement, such as the use of force or dealing with a person of another race or ethnicity.

Cox said lawyers have to undergo continuing legal education. His office gets most of their training from the annual commonwealth’s attorney’s service counsel, which involves mandatory training that includes cultural diversity.

Demographics

Both offices were asked about their demographic makeup. The commonwealth’s attorney’s office has four staff members – two men and two women who are all white.

According to the 2010 Census, 9.5 percent of Powhatan’s residents identified as black only and 11.9 percent as black and brown, Nunnally said. He said 14 percent of his uniformed officers are black, up from 4.6 percent in 2016, and 16.2 percent are black and brown.

New laws

Cox was asked about new laws going into effect on July 1 and if any will change how his office prosecutes crime that will affect minorities in particular. He said he couldn’t think of any that will affect minorities in particular because his business is done in court and is open for anyone to see. They talked briefly about the threshold amount for grand larceny increasing from $500 to $1,000. He also talked about the decriminalization of being caught with 1 ounce or less of marijuana, calling it a positive change.

Civilian review board

The idea of having a civilian review board was brought up a few times during the meeting. While Powhatan does not have a civilian review board, it does have a multijurisdictional grand jury, which is made up of citizens from Powhatan, Amelia, Goochland and Prince Edward counties. The 11-member grand jury has the ability to subpoena witnesses they want, not only ones presented by law enforcement officers.

Cerullo pointed out that while civilian review boards only have the power they are imbued with by the locality where they are formed, a multijurisdictional grand jury’s powers come from the Code of Virginia.

Cerullo also said that the multijurisdictional grand jury is made up of everyday citizens from the four participating counties, and while there are currently no openings, he will still take applications in case of an opening. Members are chosen by Circuit Court Judge Paul Cella.

Body cameras

Nunnally said he is currently debating the use of body cameras as he is divided between the cost and the necessity. To start a body camera program in Powhatan would cost close to $100,000. His office is currently testing two different models. The biggest issue is the associated costs, which can be prohibitive.

Cerullo said he has been working with the sheriff’s office on the issue of body cameras and their research has shown it presents a big feasibility question financially. Going with cheaper models means they run the risk of losing footage, which can hurt the cases they are building. Every single video that is recorded is discoverable by the defense, which involves software to share them. There are also the issues of storage and increasing personnel in the commonwealth’s attorney’s office to review footage.

School resource officers

The main purpose of having SROs in the school is to protect the children, Nunnally said. His office is very careful about the juvenile cases it chooses to prosecute because they don’t want to create the “classroom to prison pipeline.” The main instances where charges have been necessary involved illegal substances or assault cases.

They are also there to protect against the very real threat in this nation of school shootings, he said. They are not there to enforce school rules, he added.

Defund the police

Taking funds away from law enforcement is not the solution to the nation’s problems, Nunnally said. Law enforcement needs more partners in police work, such as mental health providers, and those partners need more funding. Law enforcement officers are often tasked with duties outside of their profession or expertise because there is no one else to respond.

“Police reform will solve the problem, but defunding us will not solve it,” he said.

However, he pointed out that the potential danger of a call for help is not always immediately evident when a call comes into 911, meaning they don’t know what the situation will be when they show up. And mental health professionals are not trained to handcuff or restrain someone who doesn’t want to go into custody.

Mental health

The sheriff’s office has a psychiatrist on retainer, and anytime a deputy is observed struggling with issues at home or at work, he or she is referred to the psychiatrist. Deputies are also allowed to visit the doctor on their own without a referral but still having the bill covered.

The Rev. Darnell Carruthers, who was listening to the town hall, asked if there are mandatory policies in place that ensure psychiatric evaluations or mental health evaluations are done on a regular basis, such as every six months to one year. Nunnally said there isn’t but it is an idea he would consider.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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