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Final three candidates for Charlottesville police chief face off in candidate forum

Trust, healing and community were the prevailing themes during Monday night’s Police Civilian Oversight Board police chief candidate forum in Charlottesville.

The City of Charlottesville announced the final three candidates for the city’s new chief of police roughly six hours before the forum: current acting chief Latroy “Tito” Durrette; Loudoun County sheriff’s office major-division commander Easton McDonald; and Warrenton police chief Michael Kochis.

Candidates responded to questions submitted by community members to the PCOB for two hours. The city hired POLIHIRE, a Washington, D.C.-based search firm, to recruit candidates. Interim city manager Michael Rogers then narrowed the pool to three.

“We all have had trauma and I want to be part of that healing process,” Durrette said during his opening remarks.

Durrette replaced former Charlottesville police chief RaShall Brackney after serving as assistant police chief. Brackney, who was in attendance Monday night, filed a lawsuit in June against Durrette and other city officials, alleging racial and gender discrimination after she was fired in September 2021.

Durrette served as head of Charlottesville’s SWAT team when Brackney disbanded the unit. Brackney said at the time that she terminated the unit over team members’ misconduct. That misconduct included sending videos of naked women and simulated sex acts, according to a city press release.

A SWAT team member and a field training officer also exchanged messages about killing command staff and other officers.

Members of the team also engaged in unauthorized training sessions with department-issued weapons; some of the unit members’ children participated in one of these sessions.

McDonald said that police are necessary to stop crime but acknowledged that law enforcement hasn’t always done that.

“I am a true believer in the need for police, which is to stop crime. That’s the role of law enforcement. How you do that is where police departments get into trouble,” McDonald said.

McDonald has worked for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office since 2001 in various capacities, including as a school resource officer, a lieutenant and an assistant division commander. In 2014, he shot his teenage daughter after he mistook her for an intruder, according to an article from the Washington Post. He then crashed his car while driving her to the hospital and was temporarily placed on administrative leave. He did not face criminal charges over the shooting.

“That’s not something that he was criminally liable for, and it doesn’t bear on his judgment at all. So, I don’t think it should have been a subject,” Rogers said.

Kochis said he was interested in the job in part because of how invested Charlottesville residents had been in the search for a new chief.

“This is a community that’s screaming to be involved,” Kochis said of Charlottesville. George Floyd’s murder by a police officer made him realize that communities need to be more involved with their police forces.

Kochis has served as Warrenton’s police chief for nearly three years, according to a resume published by the city. In Warrenton, Kochis implemented a program called Guardian Score — a review system that allows people stopped by police to leave an anonymous star rating based on fairness, communication and listening skills, according to the Washington Post.

Previously, Kochis was a police commander in the city of Alexandria. He started his career in law enforcement in Roanoke in 1999.

The candidate forum came two weeks after a deadly mass shooting at the University of Virginia. That mass shooting occurred during an especially violent fall—making gun violence an even more pressing issue for Charlottesville residents.

Durrette told the city council during a Nov. 7 meeting that shootings in Charlottesville had gone down. In 2020, there were 298 calls to police for shots fired through the end of the year; in 2021, there were 322 calls; and as of Oct. 23 of this year, there were 211.

Durrette said that gun violence disproportionately affects neighborhoods populated by people of color.

“Nine out of 10 [times], it’s happening in our Black and brown communities, where there are disparities. We have to get there … not just because somebody rings the bell because it’s starting to impact our financial district,” Durrette said. “It takes all of us to sit down at a table, put our heads together, put our nose to the ground and really root out how to address that.”

McDonald, meanwhile, emphasized the role that communities can play in stopping gun violence.

“How are individuals getting hold of these guns? We know that a lot of the guns are being taken from unlocked vehicles,” McDonald said, urging people to lock their cars and homes at night.

Research from the gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety indicates there are more guns being stolen from cars than in previous years. However, it’s unclear whether those guns are being used in shootings or whether they’re being sold illegally.

Earlier data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives indicates that guns stolen from cars and homes were used in 10% to 15% of gun crimes.

Kochis said that as police chief of the Warrenton Police Department, he was tasked with a similar situation where gun crime was down, but concern about gun violence was high.

“What we did is we met with key stakeholders … and we came up with a strategy to address the issue,” Kochis said. “We took that strategy and then we met with members of the community and we ran it by them.”

Community members were unhappy with the strategy, Kochis said, so they developed a new one. Calls for service in the area dropped from 160 to one between July and November, he said.

The candidates responded to questions about how they would ensure that the police force reflected Charlottesville’s diversity.

Durrette pointed to his own background as a way he would promote diversity in the department.

“I came from the other side of the railroad tracks … I know how it is to be homeless,” Durrette said, having experienced homelessness as a child. “As long as I’m going to be in this space, I’m going to do my best, start from small and get this representation together.”

McDonald said the department needed to recruit from local colleges and universities in order to reflect Charlottesville’s demographic makeup.

“You get with the chair at the criminal justice school, and you introduce them to the Charlottesville [police department]. You’re not selling the police department, you’re trying to improve,” McDonald said.

Kochis said the Warrenton police force had committed to hiring more female staff to bring their representation up to 30% within the department. Currently, his staff consists of 24% women.

“Women just make better cops,” Kochis said. Academic studies have found that female officers use force less frequently than their male counterparts.

He also said the department needed to make sure it was a place where people from diverse backgrounds wanted to work.

“It needs to be a mindset that your agency does … so folks want to come and work for the Charlottesville Police Department,” Kochis said.

The three candidates concluded the forum by saying that any one of them would be qualified for the job.

Rogers will make the final recommendation, which the city council will then vote on. But it’s not clear when Rogers’ decision will come. If Durrette is hired, he would be the third police chief the city has had since 2017. If McDonald or Kochis are hired, they would be the fourth police chief in five years.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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