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How Will Statewide Police Reform Affect Valley?

Randi B. Hagi

In October, Governor Ralph Northam signed into law an omnibus police reform bill that establishes a number of state-wide standards for law enforcement training, equipment, and conduct. But how much will actually change for local residents and officers, and where should we go from here? WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

The newly adopted legislation incorporates more than a dozen Virginia House and Senate bills, which include new training standards, banning no-knock warrants, and limiting the use of chokeholds and other neck restraints. Gabriel Camacho is the interim chief of the Harrisonburg Police Department. He says HPD is ahead of most of these changes. One example is their Integrating Communications, Assessments, and Tactics, or ICAT, training, which every officer in the department has now taken.

Credit Randi B. Hagi
Gabriel Camacho is interim chief of the Harrisonburg Police Department.

GABRIEL CAMACHO: We made sure that we were ahead as far as an extra tool for our officers to deal with de-escalation … That was definitely a priority for us.

Camacho said the reforms help to –

CAMACHO: Establish that accountability, trust, and legitimacy and confidence with our residents and with our community.

He says other reforms, such as the restrictions on military grade equipment, won't affect the department. Camacho also said that, to his knowledge, HPD has no history of using no-knock warrants. And the department had already added a clause to its use of force policy back in June, instructing officers to intervene when they see another officer using force that is ‘beyond reasonable on any citizen.’

CAMACHO: Maybe I'm taking it for granted, but that should always be the standard.

That's a sentiment I heard from activists as well: that a lot of these standards should have already been in place.

Credit Addison Tucker
Addison Tucker is an anti-racist activist studying restorative justice at Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

ADDISON TUCKER: I think it's something that should have been dealt with a long time ago, just like this entire country should have dealt with our, our racist past and present a long time ago.

Addison Tucker is an anti-racist activist studying restorative justice at Eastern Mennonite University's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

TUCKER:  And I think it's actually kind of bittersweet that we're just now passing bills like this.

I also spoke with a local resident with a unique perspective from both sides of the law. Years ago, Joe Dudash was a guard at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center and a patrolman at Western State before falling on hard times.

JOE DUDASH: Pretty much a lot of injuries. I moved back to Harrisonburg, went through a divorce, and just, things were going pretty rough … and I was actually locked up there for a while. I spent 15 months in jail. I caught a drug charge and I was, you know, using pain meds pretty bad at the time.

When Dudash says a lot of injuries led him to using painkillers, keep in mind that includes a broken shoulder, a broken neck, and several surgeries over the years.

DUDASH: I have more metal in me than you could probably make a handgun with, minus the spring.

Dudash said that the correctional officers at the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail treated the inmates fairly and without favoritism.

DUDASH: I think most of the time in Harrisonburg and Augusta County, most of the officers around here are pretty fair and decent. And even the sheriff's department, hell, the other day I got picked up by one of them who saw me limping really bad and he just gave me a ride home.

As far as reforms are concerned, he thinks local law enforcement is already doing a good job.

DUDASH: I think everybody should thank an officer, at least daily. Or wave, instead of looking at them as an opposing force. They should be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve, because they risk their butts. I mean, it's scary as anything when you roll up on a call and you have no idea what you're actually dealing with.

Credit Randi B. Hagi
Harrisonburg community activist Stan Maclin works to facilitate dialogue between law enforcement and residents through the People's Equality Commission of the Shenandoah Valley, or "PECO."

Community organizer Stan Maclin has been working to facilitate dialogues between local residents and law enforcement through the People's Equality Commission of the Shenandoah Valley, or 'PECO' for short. He was heartened by many of the reforms, including those that empower civilian law enforcement review boards.

STAN MACLIN: It gives the citizenry some opportunity … in making a difference. No longer is it just law and order. It really now can be, to help, to empower law enforcement officers to serve and to protect.

To this end, Maclin and PECO are working to get local residents on the Community Criminal Justice Board, which is primarily composed of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County officials and representatives from law enforcement and the courts.

MACLIN: Having these laws on the books is good, but they have to be enforced, and they have to be carried out. So I'm really excited about a citizen review board, because hopefully they could help to monitor and to help facilitate a lot of these important new laws … I want to commend the governor and the legislators for these needed reforms. I think that criminal justice has been aching for something like this for quite some time, and I'm glad that Virginia has stepped up along with other states to make a difference.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.