Relationship building: Police officers focus on getting to know the community they serve

Photo: Rammelkamp Foto Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Chief Timothy Longo recently announced his retirement after 34 years of police work. The last 15 of them have been at the Charlottesville Police Department during a time of many high-profile investigations, such as the disappearance and murder of Hannah Graham and the indictment of her alleged killer, Jesse Matthew.

“I’ve got nothing left to give,” he says, but the legacy he’ll leave behind is one of relational policing—a rebranding of community policing he created to focus on building relationships with the people his department serves. In late October, he presented his big idea to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., as a model that other departments could look to, but it’s something he implemented on his first day in office.

With a fleet of 114 sworn officers covering eight districts citywide, Longo, 52, has spent his reign leading his uniformed men and women in reaching out to residents in an effort to collaborate with the community. Speaking to what’s happened in America over the past 18 months (namely riotous protests in Ferguson, Missouri), he says while it has challenged law enforcement, it has also created an opportunity for police departments to rethink how they do their work.

For example, Lieutenant Steve Upman says patrol officers recently took the time to knock on doors of every residence on Hardy Drive, South First Street and Sixth Street SE to ask about any concerns of people in the area. For those who weren’t home, officers left door hangers that prompted residents to reach out to them with their input.

While the Constitution of the United States guides the work of the CPD and every law enforcement office in the nation, Longo says so often officers look at this guide as the ceiling “when it’s really just the floor.” He adds, “There are so many things that we’re able to do that are constitutionally permissible, but that may not be consistent with the expectations of the community.”

And how do they learn those expectations that community members have for policing strategies? They ask. They hold open forums, they have one-on-one conversations with concerned citizens, and, when all else fails, they knock on doors.

“The results, I suppose, are largely qualitative not necessarily quantitative,” he says. “Do I believe we’ve done an increasingly better job at building relationships, opening lines of communication, and rebuilding and sustaining trust? Yes.” But the initiative isn’t perfect.

“It will always be a work in progress,” he says, adding that he hopes it continues to be a part of the department’s operating plan as he retires his badge and the organization moves forward. But while looking at the work the department does, how it affects communities and whether its work is in line with community expectations, even when department leaders find that it’s not, he says he hopes they will always “be courageous enough to say, ‘Maybe we need to rethink our strategy.’”

But one thing will remain the same: “The business is about people. It always has been and it always will be.”

To experience relational policing firsthand, C-VILLE went for a ridealong with two city officers.

Officer Randy Wu

Officer Wu pictured in his squad car. Photo: Martyn Kyle

A Charlottesville police officer of three and a half years, Randy Wu graduated from the University of Virginia in 2012. He works the evening shift from 3pm-1am and patrols District 2, which covers the Belmont area. He says it’s probably the busiest district—meaning it’s home to the largest amount of violent and domestic crime.

Wu says he makes himself accessible to the community by making his presence known in the neighborhoods he patrols. Though he can’t know everyone in the city, knowing everyone in the neighborhood is more realistic, Wu says. He recognizes most of the people he sees on the streets.

During a November 19 ridealong, Wu, or CP84 as he calls himself on the dispatch radio, was asked to define relational policing. While he jokingly asked, “What did the chief say it is?”, in his case, an age-old saying rings true: Actions speak louder than words.

4:10pm

Officer Wu makes several rounds of District 2, which he has patrolled for about two years.

4:16pm

A small girl with a big toothy grin waves to Wu excitedly. He smiles, waves back and says, “Hey.”

4:26pm

Wu slows to a stop and motions for a waiting dog walker to cross the street. The dog walker turns and heads in the opposite direction and the police officer laughs.

4:29pm

Photo: Martyn Kyle
Photo: Martyn Kyle

A Belmont resident with a cigarette in hand runs in front of Wu’s car to flag him down. He says she’s a regular and steps out to chat. After their initial fist bump, the woman playfully complains that Wu let her nephew out of jail, and he explains that, though he takes people to jail, letting them out isn’t his responsibility. She fills Wu in on the latest neighborhood gossip, says she wants to move to get away from police, threatens to kill her nephew in his sleep, asks for a ride and kicks the police car. Wu, with arms crossed and rocking back and forth, is engaged, but not alarmed. He says his goodbyes, tells her to stay out of trouble, gets back into the car and goes about his shift.

4:34pm

One of the first calls of the night comes over his radio about a 10-year-old riding a four wheeler in circles in a field off Cedar Hill Road. “Man, everything’s happening on the other side of town,” he says. “I don’t like to not do stuff.”

5:04pm

A call comes over his radio about a man clapping his hands loudly near The Whiskey Jar on the Downtown Mall. Wu prepares to confront “The Clapper,” whom he says people complain about almost every day.

5:14pm

Photo: Martyn Kyle
Photo: Martyn Kyle

When he approaches The Clapper, a guy in baggy sweatpants and long dreadlocks, Wu says he’s been called because the loud clapping is disturbing those having dinner in the mall’s outdoor seating areas. The Clapper, who says he’s worshiping God by clapping his hands and is protected by the First Amendment, explains that he “ain’t got time to mess with the devil.” Wu says the people on the mall “also have the right to not practice religion.”

The Clapper says officers in the past have said he’s allowed to continue clapping, so long as he stays mobile, rather than fixed in one spot. Wu says he respects that right, encourages The Clapper to keep moving and stops by The Whiskey Jar to follow up.

5:31pm

Wu sanitizes his hands when he gets back to his patrol car.

5:52pm

In his downtime, Wu prepares to serve four warrants with the help of Officer Grant Davis, adding that he prefers to serve warrants in pairs for safety reasons. In his stack of warrants, he knows three of the four people and decides ahead of time who he believes will open the door to him.

5:53pm

He stops to serve his first warrant and inspects a C-VILLE photographer’s car, thinking the vehicle looks suspicious compared with others in the area. He then realizes it’s the photog’s car and chuckles. Heading to the address provided on the warrant, he knocks on the door and is told the person he’s looking for does not live there. He has little success with other warrants, but does learn from one stop that the girl he’s looking for is at her fast-food job nearby.

Asked if he believes the tip, he says, “I just assume everybody is lying to me.”

6:31pm

He approaches a tow truck that’s blocking a lane of traffic while trying to pull a tractor out of the mud. He flashes his lights to alert drivers of the obstruction and hops out to help the tow truck driver.

7:33pm

Wu pulls over a silver Nissan on Elliott Avenue at Avon Street for running a red light. Admitting that he was too far away to make the best judgment call, Wu gives the driver a warning.

7:48pm

He calls the fast-food restaurant and asks to speak with the wanted employee. He tells the employee, whom he previously arrested for shoplifting, that she’s wanted for missing a court date and that he has to arrest her. And so he does, with the help of Davis, and after he puts her in the back of the car he explains everything that’s happening, asks if she’s comfortable or has any questions. He also inquires about her pet dog. “Does she still like to hide under the bed?”

8:42pm

Wu arrives at the jail and files the required paperwork. The magistrate sets the woman’s bond at $7,500. Wu says tonight, so far, has been less eventful than most.

At the end of the day, Wu says his job is about letting people know “we’re for them.”

Officer Annmarie Hamill

Photo: Martyn Kyle
Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

As a former New Yorker of 30 years, stay-at-home mother of three boys and a Fluvanna County Public Schools instructional aide, Officer Annmarie Hamill, who’s worked for the CPD for three years, has learned from experience that “a smile goes a long way.” She’s not the cop you’ve seen slinging a student across a classroom or firing rounds at innocent bystanders.

“We’re not just here to arrest people, we’re here to help,” she says. “If we know what the concerns are for our community, then it makes our job easier because we can address those before crime happens.”

Calling Charlottesville a melting pot, much like the city in which she used to dwell, she spends every shift building trust with the people who call this place home. And though she may go by CP51 on her dispatch radio, Hamill is known as the mom of the police department and says everyone on the day shift is like a family to her. She even has a “work husband.”

“I feel at home here,” she says while patrolling District 3, which covers the east side of the city from East Market Street all the way to Pen Park Road, making it one of the largest districts citywide. With her blond hair pulled back in a tight knot, rectangular glasses and two hands on the wheel, she tells of stopping her patrol car to referee a basketball game in mid-November. A slew of people shooting hoops at a court near Riverside Park had oh-no-who-is-she-going-to-arrest? written all over their faces when she pulled up in one of the CPD’s black-and-white Crown Vics. When Hamill told them she was there to play ball with them but didn’t know the rules of the game, the players laughed and made her ref. She says she had arrested one of them before.

Hamill says she truly believes in relational policing: interacting with community members in a positive way.

Photo: Martyn Kyle
Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Over the summer, she was instrumental in organizing a series of events called Ice Cream with a Cop, in which CPD officers gathered at local parks to chat with residents over free chocolate and vanilla cones. Furthermore, when Hamill’s not handing out stickers to kids playing at Riverside, she’s having lunch with them at McGuffey Park.

“They’re like bees to honey,” she says, adding that it’s important to start building relationships with people when they’re young to “[let] them know they can trust us.”

Hamill also mentions the importance of interacting with Charlottesville’s homeless population. Her goal is to get to know them on their best days, so when they’re having a bad day, she can approach them with a premade foundation of trust. Relational policing, she says, is all about trust.

C-VILLE rode with Hamill during her November 23 day shift. As a daylight officer, she works from 7:30am-5:30pm.

9:24am

Officer Hamill inspects her car, which she shares with another officer, and begins her patrol shift.

9:54am

She pulls over to text an officer whom no one has been able to contact. She says she doesn’t want him to get in trouble.

Photo: Martyn Kyle
Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

10:10am

Hamill joins Officers William Johnston and Zachary Rolfe as they confront a man wrapped in a blanket in a neighborhood near Emmet Street. It’s chilly outside, and a concerned citizen has called the police to check on the man, whom they’d never seen before. The officers offer the man a ride home, but he refuses it and heads up the street on foot.

11:10am

She gets a call to move a large piece of metal out of the road on the 250 bypass’ Locust Avenue ramp.

11:20am

A driver heads directly toward the patrol car on Park Street and slams on the breaks when he realizes his mistake. He rolls down his window and, embarrassed, apologizes. Hamill says it was an honest mistake and waves him on.

11:36am

She puts gas in the patrol car at City Yard.

11:44am

Photo: Martyn Kyle
Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

To ease the burden of her colleagues, Hamill volunteers to pick a woman up at the police department and take her to the jail. The woman had received a letter asking her to report to the CPD and she was not aware that she would be taken into custody.

The woman, surprised and upset when her name was called, explains to Hamill her situation: She had contacted the police after witnessing a domestic dispute and was prompted to be a witness in court. After intense and overwhelming nerves, she missed that court date. The woman says she feels like she’s being taken to jail for helping someone and says, “I’ll never do it again.”

Hamill explains that missing a court date is illegal and that she has to take the woman to jail, but that the magistrate would likely let her go. Hamill says she’ll give the woman a ride back to the police department after court. She pats the woman down and leaves some of her belongings behind the CPD office counter because she knows they’ll throw them away at the jail. Hamill lets the woman walk out of the building uncuffed and through the back, to avoid any attention from an unrelated camera crew outside. She eventually cuffs the woman from the front, rather than the back, for comfort.

“I try to treat everybody like I want to be treated,” she says, “and that’s very important in this job.”

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