Amid calls to “defund the police,” some local law enforcement leaders agree on places—such as mental health transport and drug addiction treatment programs—where police involvement could be reduced.
The Free Lance–Star reached out to sheriffs in Planning District 16—Stafford, Spotsylvania, King George and Caroline counties—and the Fredericksburg City Police Department for their thoughts on the police reform movement that was spurred by national outcry over the death of George Floyd during his arrest in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.
Spotsylvania County Sheriff Roger Harris, Caroline County Sheriff Tony Lippa and Fredericksburg City Police Chief Brian Layton responded.
“I am open to ways to improve,” Layton said in an interview. “I’m no expert on social reform, but I am an expert in policing and I have a couple examples where I think there are some social issues that are being handled by the police, mainly because it’s the law right now.”
Harris, who responded to questions via email, said some of these extra duties have been a strain on resources.
“Law enforcement in general take on duties that may not always be criminal in nature, but do so to merely assist the citizens, which has caused a burden on manpower,” he wrote.
Responding to mental health crises is one example, the leaders agreed.
“There’s a wide variety of calls concerning mental health issues,” Layton said.
Under Virginia law, someone in a mental health crisis who poses a risk to themselves or to others—or is in need of medical treatment and is unwilling or unable to volunteer for that treatment—can be put under an emergency custody order by magistrate. The order, by law, is executed by the local law enforcement agency.
“An officer takes that person in crisis into custody to take them to see a mental health specialist,” Layton said. “That can be a time-consuming issue. For every hour that police officer is with that person in crisis, which can be up to eight to 10 hours, that’s an important resource that is tied up. That’s an hour [the officer] is not out there doing crime prevention, traffic enforcement or being seen in the community.”
Lippa, who also responded to questions via email, said that on many occasions, a deputy is the first one to inform someone that they are under an emergency custody order, even though the courts issued the order.
“Currently, a law enforcement officer conducts involuntary mental health transports,” he said. “These transports, which in many instances involve traveling for hours, limit available law enforcement services.”
Harris said he would like to see more certified crisis intervention officers working at local hospitals to prevent having to pull officers and deputies from their other duties during a mental health event.
Layton said the city police department also gets calls from citizens about the local homeless population.
“People call the police to go check on those folks,” he said. “Maybe there’s someone else who could respond.”
Layton and Lippa also said law enforcement involvement in issues surrounding drug addiction could be reduced or changed.
“There’s a way to keep police involvement out of it before it rises to the level of criminality,” Layton said.
Layton said further reduction in police involvement in other areas could be possible, but said it would be tricky.
Lippa said he believes police systems that become corrupt are the result of “lax policies and management, permitting less than honorable officers to retain their positions.”
“Management such as this and the officers that allow themselves to become corrupted are the ones that have created the problems in today’s policing,” he said.
Lippa said it is easier for sheriff’s offices to terminate problem officers than it is for police departments.
“When I was a Virginia State Police area commander, the process took almost a year and a half to terminate a poorly performing, unsuitable trooper,” he said. “There is NO good officer who wants to work with or be associated with bad cops.
“As the elected Sheriff in Caroline County,” he continued, “I have terminated deputies that had poor attitudes or philosophies different than those that belong in modern law enforcement. I have also terminated deputies through careful investigation of founded citizen complaints.”
Layton said recruitment is “a big deal” in building a positive police force. He said the Fredericksburg Police Department goes into great detail when screening new police candidates. The process includes a background check, both written and agility tests, a psychological exam, a health exam and a polygraph exam, Layton said.
He said the process is expensive.
“We spend thousands of dollars on every recruit, just getting them to the point where they talk to a senior panel and the chief,” he said.
Harris said continued training is also “a must.”
“There is a lot of training packed into the Basic Academy—these are merely the basics,” he said.
Layton said officers can “never have enough training.” He said anti-bias and de-escalation training is especially important.
“We can’t train our officers enough,” Layton said. “We respond how we train, so we have to be training for how we want to respond. That’s really important.”
According to the Fredericksburg city budget for fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30, the police department spent $44,115 of its $8.5 million budget on travel and training, the same amount that was spent in fiscal year 2019. It was down from the fiscal year 2018 amount of $79,265.
Spotsylvania County spent $95,680 on law enforcement training in fiscal year 2019, down from $157,889 the previous year. Assistant County Administrator Bonnie Jewell said the county anticipated being able to carry over $45,000 for training in the new fiscal year—which began July 1—because the COVID-19 outbreak meant scheduled training couldn’t occur this spring.
Caroline County spent $17,600 out of its $4.7 million budget for the Sheriff’s Office on travel and training last fiscal year. That was an increase of almost 13 percent over the previous fiscal year.
Law enforcement leaders said it is necessary for officers and deputies to be armed at all times.
“Law enforcement has carried firearms for over 182 years,” Harris said. “I wish we lived in a society that didn’t need for law enforcement to be armed. However, that is not the case. We are here to protect and serve and at times are protecting the community from armed subjects.”
Lippa said a police officer’s duty is “24/7.” He said officers must be able to protect themselves as well as others.
“We never know when anyone will be in harm’s way,” he said.
According to the FBI, 48 police officers were feloniously killed in 2019. Forty-one other officers died in accidents. Of those killed in felony acts, 15 died as a result of investigative or law enforcement activities, such as traffic stops or drug-related matters. Nine of the slain officers were involved in tactical situations, such as hostage situations or while serving search or arrest warrants.
Five were involved in unprovoked attacks.
Lippa also pointed to a July 8 incident in Wythe County during which an armed suspect in a domestic disturbance, himself a former police officer, fired on officers responding to the situation from the woods near his driveway. Two officers were injured.
Harris and Lippa said law enforcement use of “certain military equipment” is also necessary on occasion.
“The reacquired equipment comes at no cost to the locality other than normal maintenance,” Harris said. “In 2012, we had an incident with a citizen who was having a mental crisis who fired upon deputies for hours. A regional semi-armored vehicle was deployed to the scene and utilized to protect the officers from gunfire. Two officers were shot and the semi-armored vehicle sustained extensive damage from gunfire that would have been directed elsewhere.”
Virginia State Police in a Bearcat armored vehicle also responded to the Wythe County incident. Officers who responded to the incident attributed the fact that no officers were killed to “everyone being well-equipped,” according to SWVA Today.