WINCHESTER — When he applied to be a Winchester police officer in 2001, Cpl. William E. Sales was the only Black person among 50 candidates.
At a public forum on policing Saturday, Sales acknowledged minorities are often reluctant to become officers because of America's long history of police brutality and harassment of Black and Latino people. About 18% of the approximately 27,000 people in Winchester are Latino and 11% are Black, but of the Winchester Police Department's 71 officers, only 2.7% are Latino and about 4% are Black. But Sales said Winchester runs a clean department and encouraged minorities to apply.
"If you feel you can put the badge on and make a difference and do it right, do it," Sales said during panel discussion at the James R. Wilkins Jr. Athletics & Events Center at Shenandoah University. "Be impartial about it and non-judgmental and do it right. Regardless of your color. More [Black and Latino ] people need to apply."
Sales was joined on the panel by Winchester Commonwealth's Attorney Marc Abrams, local public defender Timothy S. Coyne, Winchester Police Chief John R. Piper, Winchester Mayor John David Smith Jr., and Winchester Sheriff Les Taylor. The panel was moderated by Miles Davis, president of Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, and former dean of SU's business school.
The forum included hundreds of people watching online in the U.S. and in Brazil and Pakistan, some of whom submitted questions. The discussion was in response to the death of Black driver George Floyd under the knee of police officer Derek Michael Chauvin in Minneapolis on May 25 and ensuing protests around the world against police brutality and systemic racism. At some of the protests, police used flash bang grenades, pepper spray and rubber bullets, even when the protesters were mostly nonviolent.
Unlike the aggressive response by many police departments nationwide to the protests, Piper and Sales said Winchester police are trained to de-escalate tense situations and only use force as a last resort. They condemned the killing of Floyd. Piper was applauded for calling it murder.
"There was a time in this profession, I've been doing this almost 27 years, when it wasn't OK to say that," Piper said, referring to the longtime, unofficial code among police officers to not criticize fellow officers. "It is OK to say that."
Piper, who served with the Fairfax County Police Department before becoming Winchester's police chief in September 2017, said there have been just two police-involved shootings in Winchester since he has been chief and neither were deadly. Both involved men having mental breakdowns, and Piper said police too often have to deal with mentally ill people because of Virginia's underfunded mental health care system.
To deal with the problem, Piper said police work with mental health care workers at Northwestern Community Services, which is an area drug and mental health treatment provider. About 65% of the department's 71 officers have undergone 40 hours of crisis intervention treatment and are part of the department's Crisis Intervention Team that deals with people experiencing mental breakdowns or who are in crisis.
Piper noted that overall arrests in Winchester rarely involve violence. Of the 2,668 arrests in 2018, just 1.6 % involved use of force. Of the 46,045 calls for service that year, force was used just 0.9 % of the time.
Piper said he plans to put use-of-force statistics for the last five years online in the next couple of months. This will include the race and sex of the suspects who were subjected to force. Piper personally views officer body camera footage when force is used, and the department's deadly force policies can be viewed online at winchesterpolice.org.
Winchester officers, whose starting salary is about $41,500 annually, receive six months of academy training and are partnered with field-training officers for their first 10 to 12 weeks on the job. They are not trained to use choke holds to make arrests and can only use them if they are fighting for their lives. They are trained to only briefly keep their knees on a suspect's back when handcuffing a prone suspect, and they are trained to not shoot at moving vehicles unless the driver is trying to kill them or a civilian or a passenger is shooting at them.
Sales noted that most police officers involved in high-profile, unjustified killings of Black people around the nation caught on video have been fired. However, in a nation that leads the world in incarceration with 2.2 million people in jails or prisons, many for non-violent drug crimes, the officers who killed Michael Brown in Missouri, Philando Castile in Minnesota, Terence Crutcher in Oklahoma, Eric Garner in New York and Tamir Rice in Ohio were either acquitted or not prosecuted.
In the case of Rice, a 12-year-old boy Cleveland with a BB gun in his waistband who was shot before being given a chance to surrender, Officer Timothy Loehmann was hired by another Ohio department after quitting in Cleveland. He quit days later after thousands of people complained about the hiring.
Piper and Taylor said there needs to be more transparency between police departments about disciplinary records when officers leave one department for another to avoid hiring problem officers. But they oppose making internal disciplinary reports public, saying it might open up their department to lawsuits by officers about privacy violations.
Since Floyd's death, Piper said city officers are spending more time walking beats to get to know residents better. The efforts are part of ongoing community policing initiatives. They include encouraging residents to ride along with officers and holding citizen, teen and youth police academies, as well as participating in community events like the annual North End Summer Kickoff.
While saying he wants police to partner with the community, Piper opposes the creation of a citizens review board that would have the power to discipline officers for misconduct. Responding to a question about review boards from Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County, Piper said he would support a police chief's advisory board. It would consist of citizens who would meet monthly or quarterly with the chief to offer advice, community concerns and opinions.
"It needs to be diverse," Piper said. "It needs to be representative of the entire city of Winchester and not just a bunch of folks who want to come visit with the chief."
Responding to questions about traffic stops, Piper said drivers can ask to speak to an officer's supervisor during the stop if they feel they are being harassed. However, he advised they call the supervisor after the stop. They can also visit the department to make a complaint.
Another questioner said that a Winchester officer in the past had threatened to seize the phones of people who were filming an arrest as evidence. Piper said police don't need phone video as evidence because of body cameras and said it would be unconstitutional for police to seize phones. Taylor encouraged people to film arrests, noting it led to the arrest of Chauvin and the three other officers involved in Floyd's death.
Besides police tactics, the discussion focused on systemic racism and the U.S.'s highest-in-the-world incarceration rate. Coyne said in 2014, about 21% of arrests in Winchester involved African-Americans, nearly double their population rate in the city. The percentages were nearly as high in Clarke and Frederick counties despite far smaller percentages of Black residents. About 20% of Virginians are Black, but Blacks comprise about 58% of the state's prison population.
Critics says the high percentage is due to strict drug laws and disproportionate drug arrests in mostly Black neighborhoods rather than mostly white suburbs, where the buyers of the drugs often return. Coyne said there needs to be a greater focus on alternatives to incarceration and cited the Northwest Regional Adult Drug Treatment Court, which started in 2016 as one local solution.
Smith urged Black people to be part of the solution to racism and said their fear of police and modern-day lynchings like the killings of Trayvon Martin in Florida and Ahmed Arbery in Georgia are real.
"Yes, we do feel like we're being targeted," said Smith, who is Black. "And it's not always police cars that you need to be afraid of because you have pickup trucks with Confederate flags driving next to you. So this is the community that we live in. This is the country that we live in. This is what we have to deal with."