When Steve Sellers took the job as chief of Albemarle County Police in late 2010, he came to a department where, earlier that same year, four officers had been disciplined for inappropriate behavior on the job. He took over an organization where a dashcam video of an officer listening to the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps” while mowing down artist Gerry Mitchell in a wheelchair in a crosswalk in 2007 went viral, one where a jury found another officer “grossly negligent” in 2006 for the fatal 1997 shooting of Frederick Gray.
Sellers acknowledges that the department’s reputation was in shambles and morale was low when he came in from the Fairfax County Police Department. During the December 13, 2010, announcement that he was taking the Albemarle police top job, Sellers said, “I don’t support or condone any behavior that erodes the public trust. I have 28 years with a highly regarded, ethically sound police department. Truthfulness is an absolute must. Truthfulness, integrity and public trust are very high on the list.”
Almost exactly five years later, after Sellers, 54, has announced he’ll retire June 1, he sits down to set the record straight with a reporter who was there during his first press conference and who wrote a 2013 article following three Albemarle police shootings that year called “Code of Silence: County clams up when cops open fire.” The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
C-VILLE: First of all, what’s with “colonel”? Why do you have that as your job title?
Sellers: Thank you for asking. Colonel—that wasn’t my idea at all. I was a lieutenant colonel in Fairfax before I came here and people called me colonel. For some reason, the first media interview I did when appointed here in 2010, somebody called me colonel. I told people they could call me colonel, chief, Steve, I don’t care. For some reason “the colonel” stuck. My name is not “the colonel.” It’s Steve.
C-VILLE: Is there anything that’s been in the media that you want to clear up?
Sellers: It’s really a matter of being able to defend police officers when they’re correct in their actions, but not in the time frame of the media. I’ll give you an example—the infamous Hook front page. You wrote the article. That was on the heels of a police shooting.
C-VILLE: Two police shootings.
Sellers: Having to defend the actions of those officers and knowing what the actions are, but not being able to do it on the time frame of the media, that was frustrating. It’s like fighting a fight with both your hands handcuffed behind you. You know the information is going to get out. It’s just not going to get out on your time frame. I understand there’s a balance there with transparency. And that’s just frustrating for me because I want to tell the story but I can’t tell the story for a variety of reasons. It’s not that things are being reported inaccurately. I wouldn’t characterize it as that at all. It’s just it’s only being reported from one side of the story.
C-VILLE: That was 2013 and there were two police shootings, and it was a number of weeks before the name of the officer who shot and killed Greg Rosson was released. Since that time, police have come under a lot of national scrutiny. Is it still a good idea to not reveal the name of someone who’s on the public payroll who’s killed someone or wounded someone, even if he’s cleared later on?
Sellers: It depends on the situation. I think eventually it has to be released and it is our policy to release, but there are certain checks and balances that must be checked off before that’s done. No. 1, is there an eminent threat of retaliation against the officer or their family? We do a risk assessment immediately after a police shooting. If there is, it is in the best interest to sit on that information for a while to resolve or mitigate it. I’m a proponent of releasing the name, but I think there are certain precautions you have to take before you do that. I understand the need for transparency. I get that.
C-VILLE: A recent article said you fired 50 officers.
Sellers: So that’s incorrect. I fired 14 officers since I’ve been here. I’ve hired 50 officers.
C-VILLE: How would you characterize the difference in the reputation of this police department from when you came here?
Sellers: I think the reputation is better. I think the police officers are better. I think the training is better. I think in every iteration of a new police chief, it evolves.
During Chief [John] Miller’s 21-year tenure, it got systematically disassembled because of the recession. There were 106 officers when I got here and we have 136 now and can hire up to 139. It’s dangerous to be in remote areas of the county like Greenwood or Scottsville or Boonesville with backup 20 minutes away. You have to be extremely good with this. [He points to his mouth.]
C-VILLE: What would you say you’re most proud of during your time here?
Sellers: I’m most proud of the change in culture the officers and civilian employees embraced through my tenure here. It was a significant change for them to go toward community-first mentality, citizen-first mentality from where they were when I got here, which was traditional response-driven policing, going to call, to call, to call. I’m proud of the men and women who changed the way they police. I think the opportunity to start over again has helped them understand they need to evolve with policing in the 21st century and I think they’ve done a great job.
You can ask any citizen out there. I hear it all the time. It’s not the same police department as when I got here. And that was my goal. I’m a change agent. I came in here to take the department to the next level, and I hope the next person to come in here takes it to the next level. Policing has changed in the past two years. You’ve seen it.
Along with geo-policing, there are four significant changes coming in the next six months. A new records management system will change how we do business as police officers. Computer-aided dispatch will improve the effectiveness and timeliness of things we do in the field. The new police firearms training facility will improve our training on use of force significantly so these critical decisions will be consistent. And training will be consistent in all three departments [Albemarle, Charlottesville and UVA police], so if there’s an active shooter, we’ll all be on the same page. That’s a huge community change. That wasn’t me. That was the three departments getting together.
C-VILLE: Did you and [Charlottesville Police Chief] Tim Longo coordinate your retirements?
Sellers: My retirement was known on day one when I was hired. Tim did confide in me about a month in advance of his announcement.
C-VILLE: And what are you going to do during retirement besides woodwork?
Sellers: I’m going to be a squeaky wheel.