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Harrisonburg Police Chief Emphasizes Transparency In Town Hall Meeting

Andrew Jenner

Nearly four months into his new job leading the Harrisonburg Police Department, Chief Eric English hosted a town hall meeting on Monday night. Stressing the importance of partnering with the public, English plans to continue hosting similar events in the future.  WMRA’s Andrew Jenner reports.

Chief Eric English’s commitment to transparency begins on the business cards he brought to hand out at Monday’s town hall. They list his cell phone number, which English really hopes that people call.

ERIC ENGLISH: We need your input, we need your help, we need your assistance. Public safety is a shared responsibility.

Several dozen people attended the wide-ranging meeting. English began by highlighting priorities ranging from youth engagement to deploying new technology to his support for alternative practices like restorative justice, among other things.

ENGLISH: We get a lot of mental health cases that we have to deal with. And I’ll just be honest with you, law enforcement agencies across the country, we were not built for mental health. But we’ve had to adapt ourselves to make sure we can cover those mental health cases, because we get called on those.

As a result, English has mandated crisis intervention training for all officers – including himself. His department is also starting peer support groups to meet in-house mental health needs.

ENGLISH: We got through a lot of traumatic incidents in the job, in the profession, that we have. If anybody’s been doing this job for any period of time, it’s always been ‘Alright, get back to it, suck it up, this is what you signed up for.’ Yep. We did. We signed up for it. But just because you see a lot of things don’t mean it doesn’t affect you in some form or fashion.

During an hour-long Q&A after he spoke, English was pressed on his department’s cooperation with federal ICE agents, which he said is very limited. English also was asked whether he’s concerned about disproportionate use of force against African-Americans and public perception of local police. Last month, controversy arose over cell phone video of an African-American woman being tasered by police originally responding to a noise complaint. In response, English backed his officers’ actions and took the unusual step of releasing body camera footage.

ENGLISH: I don’t want it to be a situation where we’re looking to catch the Harrisonburg Police Department doing something wrong. We’re not always going to get it right. But let’s not wait until that time happens. Let’s try to work on some things that you see going wrong in your neighborhoods. Let’s try to correct those now.

Andrew Jenner is a freelance reporter based in Harrisonburg. After working as a journalist in the Shenandoah Valley for a decade, he spent three years living and reporting in Brazil, returning to Harrisonburg in the summer of 2018. Andrew has reported for TheAtlantic.com, The Washington Post, Deutsche Welle, Discover, Modern Farmer, and many others. He is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University, has a MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Goucher College, and almost made it onto Jeopardy! a few years ago.