Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo sat down with C-VILLE to talk about policing priorities—
including homelessness—and now he wants to hear from you. Do you have questions for him? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo hit the streets of Baltimore in 1982 at the start of city’s crack cocaine epidemic, a newly minted officer fresh off his education at Towson University. After 15 years on the front lines of a drug war that was immortalized by the hit HBO series “The Wire,” Longo retired from the Baltimore Police Department as a 37-year-old colonel in the Technical Services Bureau.
“I learned a lot about human nature,” he said of his experience. “And also began to realize how fortunate I was and how unfortunate others were.”
Now 50 and a world away from Baltimore, Longo’s mission hasn’t changed in the 12 years since he moved to Charlottesville. Neither, he says, have the streets.
“We have all the same problems here as in Baltimore, just on a smaller scale,” he said.
Longo recently submitted his department budget for Fiscal Year 2013-14. Public safety accounts for about a quarter ($34.4 million in 2012-13) of the city’s total budget allocation, second only to education, and Longo directly oversees a staff of 146 full time employee equivalents, who together earn around $11.5 million in salary and benefits. While the department’s staff levels haven’t risen in the past three years, last year the total budget allocation for public safety increased by 2.56 percent, and this year’s budget projects a 1.57 percent increase, with the police department’s budget contracting slightly.
“Undoubtedly, local governments across the nation and the Commonwealth are confronted with serious fiscal challenges,” he said of the budget challenges he’s facing. “I want to change the way we do business, the way the profession does things. I want to continue to improve the professionalism and transparency of policing.”
Violent crime, a category that includes rape, assault, robbery, and homicide, has decreased steadily in Charlottesville over the past decade, from 335 incidents in 2003 to 157 in 2011, according to the department’s 2012 annual report. Longo sees gang violence as an area that still demands attention.
“I continue to be concerned about emerging trends such as gang crime and gang violence that pose significant threats to communities, large and small, across the country. Police agencies and localities must remain vigilant and prepared to stand up resources and implement programs aimed at delivering appropriate enforcement efforts, but complemented with evidence-based prevention strategies.”
As the city openly wrestles with the way it deals with marijuana, the enforcement strategy of its police force will continue to focus on the intersection of drugs and violence.
“With respect to drug enforcement, my goal is pretty specific; focus our time, energy, and resources on those who use the drug trade to perpetuate violence and disrupt the quality of life in our communities,” Longo said.
School violence has been in the news, and new state level initiatives have changed the playing field for police forces in the Commonwealth.
“Recent events have also raised our level of awareness as it relates to school violence. The fact of the matter is that such behavior has presented itself in other venues equally as target rich and destructive,” Longo said. “We need to be attentive to the recommendations that surface from the Governor’s Task Force on School Violence and be willing to work hard to implement those that make the most sense to law enforcement, parents, teachers, administrators, and stakeholders across the continuum.”
Homelessness is an issue that Longo cares about on a deeply personal level. Longo’s older brother had a career as a respiratory therapist, a wife, and a successful son. He also had a severe drug addiction, and after their mother died and their father fell ill, Longo watched his brother’s life spiral out of control as he lost everything and wound up begging on the streets.
“So when I look at people out there, I can’t help but wonder what their stories are,” he said. “Everyone’s got one.”
Longo has been a consistent advocate of providing homeless individuals the help they need to move on with their lives while still doing his job of enforcing the law. And his brother, who died after five years clean, is always in the back of his mind.
“The question of how we, as both a community and a local government, deal with issues of homelessness extends well beyond the delivery of policing services. You cannot and should not use the powers of arrest and enforcement as the primary means to eradicate an issue that is a symptom of a much, much larger problem,” he said. “I have neither the wisdom nor the power to fix homelessness in Charlottesville; nor should a Police Department be used as the means by which to solve this long standing and overwhelming problem—not just here—but in cities and towns across America.”
He thinks the issue of panhandling on the Downtown Mall should be a separate discussion.
“With regard to panhandling, I think it is speculative (and unfair) to conclusively associate this activity with the homeless population. I am not suggesting for a moment that some who engage in this behavior are not homeless,” he said. “I am simply suggesting that not all who engage in this behavior are homeless. To lump the two together and suggest they are one is not right in my opinion.”