Just days after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, Gov. Ralph Northam spoke about numerous Black people who have been killed by police because “in America, the color of their skin means that they are treated differently.”
Roanoke County Police Chief Howard Hall listened to Northam and was bothered, because he felt like the governor was painting police officers as racist.
So he scheduled to have the governor meet in person with the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, an organization of law enforcement leaders for which Hall serves as president.
The chiefs laid out their concerns about how officials were talking about police officers and the problems law enforcement face.
Hall said he asked Northam twice, “Who in Virginia would want to be a police officer right now?”
He said Northam remained silent.
With the General Assembly ramping up discussions around police reform ahead of an August special session, law enforcement groups are stepping up their lobbying. The groups wield a lot of influence over lawmakers who don’t want to appear they are against the police.
Hall is resistant to many of the proposals that Democratic lawmakers have suggested.
“I don’t think what is trying to be accomplished is very well defined by the people putting together the proposals, other than platitudes that sound nice about social justice and racial equity,” Hall said in a two-hour interview this week.
He and other chiefs also have ideas of their own.
The chiefs’ association provided the Northam administration with various proposals for how it thinks law enforcement agencies can improve.
They include getting Virginia’s law enforcement agencies accredited to ensure they are following best practices, improving the decertification process for officers to prevent those committing misconduct from moving between agencies, and getting officers trained on how to properly respond to people with mental illnesses.
Many of the measures would be expensive. This is why he pushes back on the calls to “defund the police.”
He said police are serving in roles they shouldn’t be, like social workers, family counselors, addiction specialists and homelessness coordinators. Police don’t want to take on these roles.
But, he said, even if those duties are shifted to the more appropriate agencies, he can’t see how funding can be reduced while implementing other changes.
Hall has a lot of criticisms about the various proposals lawmakers are considering.
He doesn’t think the state code should ban specific acts, such as chokeholds and police executing search warrants without announcing their presence. The Roanoke County Police Department trains its officers on what is referred to as a lateral vascular neck restraint, which should only be used if deadly force is justified, Hall said.
Lawmakers want to expand use of body cameras. Hall hasn’t prioritized body cameras for his own police department because he said he doesn’t think there’s a good return on investment.
“If right this minute I had the funds to implement body cameras, I wouldn’t give it a second thought: I’d pay people,” Hall said. “I would get a better return on investment to pay people who want to stay here longer and have a career.”
There were public calls for Roanoke County police to get body cameras after officers fatally shot 18-year-old Kionte Spencer in 2016. Police partially captured the incident on cameras in the police cars. Hall has declined to release the footage, or the names of the officers who shot Spencer.
Roanoke County’s then-prosecutor said the officers’ actions were justified. The U.S. Department of Justice announced in November 2016 that a probe found no basis for criminal civil rights charges.
On June 20, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in Roanoke, approximately 80 people called attention to the case again in a demonstration at the site where Spencer died near Cave Spring Corners shopping center.
Hall is also opposed to legalizing marijuana, reducing assaulting a law enforcement officer from a felony to misdemeanor, and programs that lead to early release from prison.
He’s against peeling back qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that shields police officers from lawsuits. He’s skeptical about some data collection intended to identify biased policing because he thinks the public needs more context.
“The VACP is going to provide accurate information about the consequences of doing these things, which, if a substantial number of them are done, are going to negatively impact public safety in the state,” Hall said.