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Feb 14

Thoughts on Keeping Newport News Safe

Posted on February 14, 2017 at 10:06 AM by Jamie Bastas

One of the most frustrating things about a career in policing is when we think we are doing the right thing and doing it well, and subsequently find out some in the community interpreted our actions as inadequate and even wrong-minded. As I’m approaching my 40th anniversary in policing, you’d think I would be used to this problem, but in the last couple of weeks, another reminder struck.

A few weeks ago, our Department took a report of hate-based graffiti that concerned me a great deal. It was the type sometimes associated with hate groups and could have been a signal that a group was ratcheting up their rhetoric, I thought. Subsequently, officers responding to a break-in at an area High School arrested two juveniles, and through outstanding investigation, were able to link the two offenders to the previous graffiti and other vandalism including an arson fire. At a previous crime briefing to the media and community, I cited this case as a sign of how seriously NNPD views crimes of intimidation and hate, and how pleased I was at our speed in resolving those cases.

Instead of generating community confidence, the lack of public information about how juvenile arrests and detentions work led to several in our community feeling that we were going soft on these kids, for whatever reason. This was fueled by my description that upon their arrest, they were turned over to their parents. There is a “rest of the story” of course. In Virginia, juvenile detention centers follow a Detention Assessment Instrument (DAI) that assigns points based upon the specific charges or crimes a juvenile is being arrested for. On the day of the initial arrest, the ONLY charge that officers had probable cause to arrest for was the burglary for which the offenders were apprehended. The points assigned for burglary are well below what is needed to justify a detention, and the prescribed outcome is for custody to be turned over to parents. That is what we did. However, over the following week or two, NNPD detectives and NNFD Fire Marshall Investigators actively worked several incidents which resulted in a much longer list of felony charges forthcoming. When the juvenile petitions were authorized, the two offenders were then taken into custody and put in juvenile detention based upon the new DAI score. I have no idea today if they’re even still in custody; unlike adult courts and jails, the rules in the juvenile justice system are designed to get youth back into the community quickly. But I can tell you that the police don’t make up the procedures, rules, or requirements. It is called the Criminal Justice System because there are many components, starting with the entry into the System (the police) and a long series of other entities that determine what happens next.

It was unfair and inaccurate to lay blame on the lack of immediate detention on the police in this case. Maybe it reflects some unresolved mistrust between the police as an institution and those in the community who were offended by this. We know some trust gaps still exist and every single day we urge our officers to carry out their police duties in a way that strengthens trust and partnerships within the community as opposed to widening the gaps. Sometimes we are slow to release information that could help our community better understand how and why we do things the way we do, and maybe this was one of those. It does, nevertheless, knock one back a step or two when we work hard to accomplish something we think is very good, and find that it has an opposite effect on some.

One of the purposes of starting up this blog was to share some of the “insider view” of the police business with the community at large. We also have started doing some media and community briefing sessions updating on crime and the consequences of committing crimes in our city. All of this is in recognition of the fact that traditional policing doctrine was a “just the facts, ma’am” and “I’d have to kill you if I told you” mentality about important information on crimes of interest to residents. We are now striving to really strike a balance, so that we can push more relevant information out in a timelier manner without jeopardizing an investigation or the subsequent prosecution. It can be a very fine line, and if we are to err, we will err on the side of preserving the case. But we are trying to move away from the traditional doctrine as part of our complete commitment to Community Policing.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A homicide takes place. The traditional police response, which might be in place for months to follow is: “There is no suspect information at this time and no other details are going to be released.” But, let’s say the police really know that this murder was a drug rip off, the victim was going to buy drugs and ended up being double crossed and killed. And, there could even be pretty good evidence/information about who the deal was with and who we should be moving in on. We can’t say any of that; it would jeopardize the case, it could make it tougher to solve and apprehend the offender AND it could severely hamper the prosecutor’s ability to try the case. This is why police typically would continue to say, “We don’t have any suspect information at this time, the case remains under active investigation.” This does nothing to allay the fears of law abiding citizens who might live in the vicinity and are worried that this could happen to them! So, perhaps what we COULD say is this: “At this time, the evidence and information we have leads us to believe that this was not a random crime, and that the public is not at risk. We continue to ask for anyone with information to contact us so that we can bring the offender to justice.” That statement is not likely to jeopardize anything, and hopefully, it can bring a little reassurance to the community.

At one level, some may say this is simply semantics. If that’s how it feels, then I will simply accept that we won’t satisfy you with a nuanced message. But I hope that this approach resonates with many in our community who have previously felt frightened and perplexed about the collective acts of violence that NNPD investigates. This isn’t to say that any violence is acceptable. There is NO ACCEPTABLE level of homicide or shootings for our community! Too many folks are carrying and using guns unlawfully and every single victim, no matter their contribution to the scenario, doesn’t deserve the violent end that they met. As I’ve also shared with some family members of murdered persons, we do not rest when it comes to solving a homicide. Ever. If the case goes cold, then we revisit it as a cold case, but we never just drop such matters. There is nothing more precious than a human life, and as your police department, we embrace our role as preservers of the peace and upholders of the law.

Finally, in so many of our criminal investigations, there are witnesses who have information that can ultimately lead to arrest and prosecution of offenders, but they will not share that information with the police. As our South Precinct Captain Eric Randall has adopted for his 2017 mantra, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Let’s all be part of the solutions to reduce violence in Newport News.

As always, we welcome any tips that can assist us in solving crimes. Citizens can call the Crime Line at 1-888-LOCK-U-UP or text-a-tip by texting ‘TIP100 your message’ to CRIMES (274631). Crime Line is answered 24 hours a day/7 days a week. Crime Line callers remain completely anonymous, never have to testify in court and if the tips leads to an arrest, the caller could be eligible for a cash reward up to $1,000.