In the past year, Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo stood in front of the national media scrum multiple times to deal with a horrific murder and a searing rape allegation, while nationwide people were protesting fatal police encounters with black men. Then came the arrest of Martese Johnson by Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agents on city turf. Recently, Longo sat down with C-VILLE Weekly to discuss
the toll the high-profile local cases have taken, as well as issues like the unrest in his hometown of Baltimore, police militarization, stop-and-frisk and why retirement is looking better and better.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
C-VILLE: Describe the past year in three words.
Tim Longo: Hell on earth.
Your department has been in the middle of three national stories. What effect has that had on you and what effect has that had on your department?
I’ll start with me. It’s been the longest year of my career. I never envisioned coming here and the department would be on the national stage. It’s tiring emotionally and physically and you know, I’ve been at this 34 years. I’d be kidding you and me both if I didn’t say I thought more about my retirement than I ever have before. And a lot of that is you get to a point of, how much more can the human spirit take?
As far as the department goes, the Hannah Graham investigation really stretched resources in many ways, particularly the investigators. But it put a lot of stress on patrol officers as well who were not kept as well informed as they should have been because of the intricacies of the investigation and the need for confidentiality. And when you’re a small organization, that can put stress on morale.
But the community did a tremendous job of supporting the department, not just this department, but law enforcement in general in the region and beyond who came here to help. There wasn’t much we wanted for. And that was very helpful during a time we were under a lot of stress.
As far as the Rolling Stone story, of course that was a frustrating investigative task because you didn’t have a lot of information to work with, didn’t have a cooperative complainant. You gathered as much information as you could from those who could cooperate. It was unfortunate in that the situation left behind a lot of scars.
The Martese Johnson arrest was at the hands of another law enforcement agency. It just so happens that it occurred in our community. Our officers got there and Mr. Johnson was already in custody. I personally felt even though it wasn’t our case and it wasn’t something we were directly responsible for, I certainly had an obligation as chief of police to say something and to do whatever I could possibly do to work with the university, with student groups, [who were] certainly outraged.
I think we’ve made a lot of ground in that regard. I’ve met with leaders of the Black Student Alliance about ways to collaborate when they return to school next year, and what our mutual expectations are when there are police encounters. While I think the Martese Johnson incident was detrimental to police/community relations, some really good things will come out of the discussions that took place after.
What did you think about that forum at UVA after the Martese Johnson arrest where you had an angry crowd asking you questions?
I think that was necessary. I think it was useful. I know immediately thereafter I sent e-mails to the two organizers thanking them for letting us come and got pretty immediate responses back. There’s a real desire to move forward and if you have to sit through 90 minutes listening to people’s anger, their anger was legitimate. They weren’t asking questions that didn’t necessitate answers. Now whether those answers could be given at that time particularly from ABC is not the point. They were still asking the right questions.
[One person asked whether Longo cried over missing person Dashad “Sage” Smith.]
I often times am criticized for the emotional manner in which I communicated during the Hannah Graham investigation. And part of that is, I think, I felt as if I were in the shoes of those parents, as a dad having a 15-year-old girl who is growing up too quickly. I thought about that a lot during the course of that investigation, so it was kind of personal, and that doesn’t mean I don’t care about other investigations, but I’m a human being and I can’t always control how I react to things. Sometimes I think the criticism I get for that is unwarranted. I accept it. I don’t fight back, but I do think it’s unwarranted.
Those moments of you wiping away tears, have you gotten a lot of flak about that?
Yeah. I mean, look, the people who’ve known me the best, who’ve known me the longest, know me as a person who… I cry at “Touched by an Angel” all the time. I’m an emotional guy. I’m sorry. That’s just the way it is. It is who I am. I can’t apologize for it.
Tell me about the Baltimore you grew up in and how does that compare with what we’ve seen on TV the past few weeks with the Freddie Gray riots.
I don’t know about the investigation except for what I’ve read in the newspaper. I haven’t talked to anyone from Baltimore about it. I know those areas like the back of my hand. I never once—once—felt that much tension ever as a police officer there. I never felt that much tension between the police and the community.
I wonder whether maybe the manner in which policing was being conducted in the past 15 years had caused a deterioration or breakdown in the police/community relationship.
I’ve told a story over the past couple of weeks. It’s an analogy I heard someone make years ago about police there. It’s like you’re casting a net into the sea and you’re catching a bunch of fish but you’re catching minnows and guppies and turtles and blowfish. You’re not catching sharks and the sharks are the ones responsible for killing people in the neighborhood and maybe we should be fishing with a spear as opposed to a net.
If “The Wire” is the show that portrays Baltimore police, what would be the show for Charlottesville?
I guess we’d have to produce one. Let’s sit down and write a story. Look, this is a city like any other in America. It has the same problems that big cities have but it has them on a much smaller scale. We have drugs, there are substance abusers in our community, we have mental health challenges that we deal with every day. We have spikes of violent crime and property crime. We have what could be characterized as an emerging gang problem, so we have the same issues. And of course we have breakdowns in relationships, particularly along racial lines.
I think the difference between this city and others is there’s a real willingness for people to sit down and talk through this stuff. Sometimes the talk gets loud. It can get a little mean-spirited, but at least there’s a conversation out of it.
I had that community forum May 2 we had been working on for months, before Ferguson. We were hearing at community meetings citizens wanted to know us better. They want more communication and a better relationship. The discussion was powerful and beneficial and everyone walked away [saying], O.K., let’s figure out the next steps in a strategy to improve relationships, to improve trust, to improve communications and improve transparency, all four really good things. We got a dialogue going for us. There’s lots of communities that don’t have that. Lots.
Communication and trust are byproducts of relationships. But also transparency. Sometimes policing you find yourself holding your cards very close to your chest. And with investigations there’s a reason for that. But when it comes to the way you do business, I think we have to change that. It’s a work in progress. I can just tell you we’re moving towards it because it’s absolutely important that we do so. Not just us, but police departments across the country.
The past year, why have we heard so much more about black men being killed by cops?
I think you can point to the cases that have happened around the country—Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore. I went to a conference several weeks ago called Cities United. It’s all about how you reduce violence against black men and boys. Young black men. Mayor Huja signed onto this, and it’s a top priority for a lot of our cities across America, not just in black-on-black violence but state violence on black men and black boys and by state, I mean police action. There was a lot of discussion about police community relations and the importance of police chiefs and commissioners working hard to rebuild those relationships.
Even though we haven’t experienced that level of violence, we’re still impacted by what happens in cities like Ferguson or Baltimore. It shines a light on a fractured relationship in this country that’s generations old. It underscores, in my opinion, the fact that race relations are a significant part of our history and they continue to influence relationships we have today, and our work in improving those relationships and sustaining them needs to be ongoing.
When Ferguson was unraveling, one of things I did was draft a recommitment statement that’s part of our policy. Basically it’s a statement that this police department commits to the rule of law. We commit to constitutional, fair, equitable, respectful policing. We commit to working hard to diversify our ranks. Constantly I’m asked questions about diversity in the department, diversity across our command structure. Those are legitimate questions and I’ve got to work hard to improve those things. I’ve got to be action-oriented so people see we’re a department committed to working on these difficult issues that are more than alive and well in our country and will be for the balance of my career and for whoever sits in that chair when I leave. This issue will not go away and it never will. It’s part of our history. It shouldn’t. The conversation should never stop.
What are you doing to avoid a Ferguson or a Baltimore?
By constantly reinforcing that recommitment statement within this organization, by constantly supporting officers that work here and telling them they’re civic leaders in this community and people depend on them to act that way. By stressing that every citizen contact matters. If relationships are important and people know who you are, then we have trust in this community.
We’re onstage all the time and people are watching our interactions with people. Conduct yourself accordingly. And when you fall short of those expectations, there will be consequences.
The bigger question that was asked in the aftermath of Ferguson was, can it happen here? And I don’t think that’s the right question. I think the right question is, would we as a community allow things to unravel so much so that we have that level of unrest here? And I think too many people in this community would say no, we can’t let that happen. And we have to work toward making sure that it won’t happen by continuing to be open with each other, and to have dialogues and hold each other accountable and to commit to the very principles I’ve drafted in that document. And if we can all do that I think you can prevent something like that from occurring. I really do. I hope and pray that it never happens here. At the end of the day, I live here, whether I’m sitting in that seat or not. I live here.
What’s changed since you started policing?
I started policing in June of 1981. I think police officers are better trained. They’re better educated. I think there are far more internal controls that exist now that never existed before. I think there’s tremendous amount of attention paid to professional standards, whether because of accreditation or how professional organizations have focused on those standards or code of ethics or code of conduct.
I think there’s a greater emphasis on what I call relational policing [that’s also] called community policing. I think it’s really about relationships. I think we’re beginning to see a return to police officers disengaging from their cars, trying to get back out in the communities. We’re getting to reemphasize the importance of that.
I know personally I’ve worked the last 14 years—and this is no criticism of previous administrations or previous individuals who served in this department—I’ve worked hard to professionalize the organization. I’ve worked hard to restructure policies that reinforce expectations. I’ve worked hard to find the very best training I possibly can.
We’re bringing in strategies for youth training next week, which is how cops deal with young people, how young people deal with cops. We’re bringing in training the end of the month that deals with communication skills—talking to people, lowering the temperature in the room when things are getting tense. Crisis intervention team training. It was unheard of that we were training police officers specifically to deal with people who were emotionally disturbed during crisis and the benefits of that. We’ve done a lot in the last 14 years. I’ve seen this profession change.
You’ve had other high-profile cases. Is there anything you look back and say, I would have handled that differently?
Yeah. Of course. When we were doing the serial rapist investigation and embarked on using DNA and acquisition of DNA from persons identified in our records management system or other forms of information we obtained during the course of that investigation. You may recall we caught a lot of—legitimately so—heat from the community about how we were undertaking that practice. And what I learned from that was the importance of being a better communicator with the community when you’re undertaking investigative steps that others could see as controversial. Because you can’t afford to lose whatever social capital you may have gained.
Anything else you’ve learned over the past 14 years?
I personally have learned to be more patient, something I’ve always called an overrated virtue.
How often does your department stop and frisk people?
Temporary stops, temporary detentions. We track that. In July 2012 I made a decision to require that any and all temporary detentions, which are legally based on reasonable suspicion, must be documented in a narrative report. Very few if any departments in Virginia were doing it then and perhaps are doing it now.
I was concerned about my inability to measure the quality of the decision that goes into making that stop or detention because for the most part, unless it resulted in an arrest, the reasoning behind the action wasn’t being captured anywhere and that was troubling to me. So we did a couple of things.
We implemented a warning ticket program so that every time a vehicle is stopped there’s two choices. You either issue a Virginia uniform citation, which certainly outlines the reason for the stop and violation. Or you issue this warning ticket, which contains not just the demographic and identification, but the reason for the stop. The field stops—those things that happen outside the car—are tracked by these narratives now, so for the past two years we’ve been tracking this information.
Every quarter the commander and her staff review all these reports to ensure not only there was a sergeant and lieutenant who reviewed them at the time but that we made sure there is in fact reasonable suspicion for those stops to take place.
We’ve had some communication with the commonwealth’s attorney as well for those that result in an arrest but get into court and the case does not result in a conviction because the legal standard wasn’t met. We need to know that so we can take appropriate steps.
I want to construct a panel of people with our citizen’s advisory panel and maybe a representative from our Human Rights Commission that will at least quarterly, review these reports as well. Redacted versions, but the circumstances that led to the encounter would still be there so there’s independent eyes looking at this. And ask them to report back to City Council that we’ve independently reviewed this and find the actions being taken are consistent with law. If there are ones that aren’t, these were the steps that were taken to address those issues. We’ll continue to track them very aggressively.
Civil rights attorney Jeff Vogel says he’s requested this information and it was refused under the investigative exemption [and after this interview, he filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the city. See the full story here].
Mr. Fogel is correct that he has previously been denied those reports pursuant to an exemption under FOIA. I am working on developing a review/audit process of such reports utilizing the Citizen Advisory Panel and members of the Human Rights Commission.
Is militarization of police an issue here in Charlottesville?
I don’t think we’re a militarized force. We have equipment that could be utilized in a terrible, terrible situation at our disposal. The SWAT team’s activated a handful of times a year, maybe for high-risk search warrants and dignitary protection visits. Other than that, the team’s not activated much. But when we need them we need them. God forbid, a school shooting or mass shooting, you need that level of equipment and force and people who are trained to deliver it. We don’t parade it around under people’s noses though. It’s important that we be sensitive to how that equipment is deployed so that there is not the perception we’re becoming a military occupation in the city.
In 2007, you asked City Council for security cameras. Here we are eight years later, and they’re saying maybe that isn’t such a bad idea. Do you feel vindicated?
I don’t think vindication is the right word. I think all of us have come to the realization that there really is a lot of value in having cameras help you in a retrospective investigation incident. We’ve seen it over and over. I think Council’s direction last meeting on the hybrid approach—go out there and find out what’s on private buildings, see if we can access them if we need them and fill in the gaps—is a good approach. The pricing is much much cheaper than seven years ago when $300,000 was the low-ball number and now we’re talking maybe a hundred grand, maybe closer to 70 just to outfit them all. Much cheaper to do West Main, which we probably should because that whole area is a connection between the tent and the Rotunda. There’s a lot of private systems out there already and people are willing to cooperate with you if they can.
How much longer are you going to be here?
It depends on what day you ask me. Today’s a pretty good day. Monday might not be a good day. Here’s the reality. I’ve been doing this for 34 years. The past couple have been hard. There’s other things I want to do in my life. I want to do a lot of police-practices work around the country. I feel value in that. I’d love to teach someday. I don’t know if I’d ever have the opportunity to teach in law school but I’d love to have the opportunity to do that. And if one would arise, that would probably be the time I’d most consider giving up professional policing and becoming an educator.