Little did I know when we started the Chief’s Blog early this year that I would be writing my last as we approach the autumn season. I knew that I’d retire from NNPD sometime, had actually been contemplating it for this coming winter sometime, but here we are, and it’s time to say goodbye.
I said when I arrived her over 3 ½ years ago that this was my last job as a police chief, and so it is. For the first time in 40 plus years, I have to go through my closet and ensure I have enough of my OWN clothes to wear. Gone will be the ever-present chatter of the police radio in the background as I’m driving, as well as the ability to activate those hidden blue lights when I see an egregious traffic violation. I’ll still be tempted to pull off when I see an officer engaged in police work, kind of a “silent backup”. My family jokes that maybe I’ll even get my first name back, as it has been “Chief” since my first chief job in 1984.
I probably have more opinions about the quality of life in a community than many, given that I’ve been so engaged in sustaining and strengthening quality of life for so many years. One thing I’ve seen for too many years is that residents all too often think it is solely the job of the police to address quality of life issues. In reality, the police can assist and even facilitate improvement, but ultimately, it is the residents themselves who can and must lead to improvements.
Newport News is a great community; we are in the heart of our nation’s history, we are surrounded by the resources and beauty of water, and the landscape is lush with green. While natives can’t understand the context of my next remark, I find the winters here refreshingly mild (compared to the Upper Midwest where I’ve spent so much of my life). There are many things to do around here, and for my wife and I, we’ve made tremendous friendships with so many wonderful neighbors that we’re going to enjoy having a little more time to spend with them, along with traveling to see our kids and grandkids.
Newport News, like all great American cities, does have its quality of life issues to deal with. Gun violence plagues some neighborhoods, while is absent in others. The allure of gang life remains strong for youth in some neighborhoods, driven by a lack of jobs and positive role models in their lives. Some of the crime problems in our city come from what a sociologist might refer to as “community norms” that have eroded into acceptance of inappropriate and criminal behavior. When residents shrug off behaviors, such as carrying and using handguns to settle arguments and to increase acceptance by peers, it should come as little surprise that the behaviors will increase. When it becomes “normal” that kids will nightly pass through a neighborhood trying every car door, and stealing from all those left unlocked, two things come to mind: where are their parents, and why do people still leave valuables in the car and don’t bother to lock it? Let me give another example: throughout the Hampton Roads area, I have observed a level of pedestrians crossing mid-block willy-nilly like I’ve never seen in any other place I’ve lived. Is it a wonder why we have so many pedestrians killed annually? The only way to change that tragic outcome is for the community norms to change, to hold people accountable for what should be an unacceptable practice, and to teach children that it’s wrong rather than drag them by the hand as folks dodge traffic crossing the street.
I have enjoyed a strong and productive relationship working with the faith leaders in Newport News, and particularly with the African-American church pastors. Many of them understand this concept of community norms, and repeatedly bring the issue up with their parishioners. One problem with this is, far too many youth have abandoned the previous norm of church attendance, and the pastors’ lessons don’t reach their ears. Achievable Dreams schools certainly are providing a very powerful quality of life curriculum to their students, and the results are tremendous. But why is this limited to this particular school? The community has many other great institutions that are trying to address community norms, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Virginia Peninsula (among the best in the US). Again, it truly comes down to each and every citizen taking a long hard look at the existing community norms and taking action when a change needs to happen.
For my part, I’ve focused much of my energy on assessing the culture within the NNPD and taking steps to strengthen the many healthy and positive parts of it, while developing strategies to change those aspects that are unhealthy or unproductive. I understand how tough it is to change norms; leading change within police organizations is exhausting work. But, this is what chiefs are hired and paid to do, and hopefully some of the incremental improvements will yield positive results for years to come. As police chief, I want all our citizens to know, you have an outstanding police organization with a healthy set of norms, and a cadre of dedicated, ethical, and compassionate police officers who serve you 24/7/365.
A couple years ago, we started a citizen-driven initiative to develop strategies to reduce crime and improve quality of life in Newport News. Nicknamed C.R.I.M.E (Creating Responsibility in my Environment), we had hoped to engage thousands of residents of Newport News in a variety of focus groups designed to develop strategies that could be sustained. What we ended up with were six teams, each with a dozen or more residents, each taking on their own tone and area of focus. I’m very pleased to report that several of these teams have continuing efforts underway to address such significant community issues as homelessness, parenting, and strengthening police-community relationships. This process has proven that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to mobilizing volunteers.
This is how I’ll fondly remember my tenure as your police chief….engaging with the pastors, mobilizing concerned community volunteers, the privilege of working daily with such dedicated police officers. I’m grateful that my career as a police officer reaches its final chapter here, I hope that the personal ideas I’ve shared in this blog have been helpful, and close by asking everyone who reads to please take time to thank a police officer for their service, show your appreciation for NNPD at all opportunities, as there are always those who are quick to condemn. Be well.
Richard W. Myers, Chief of Police