In this small Va. town, citizens review police like Uber drivers

In order to stop the SUV from traveling at 30 mph in a 15 mph zone, Chris Ford pressed the gas pedal and accelerated his police car down Gold Cup Drive. The corporal was prepared for his first traffic stop of the day eleven hours and thirty-seven minutes into his shift.

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Ford said, flashing his blue lights on a quiet road in this little town where a busy day might mean that animals escaped from a nearby butcher, “Look at him being sneaky.”

Ford pulled into a parking spot, made his way up to the SUV, and hailed the driver who had broken the speed limit at the incorrect moment.

The driver, a Black man in a predominantly White area of a predominantly White town, stated, “I was doing 15.”

The cop returned to the cruiser with his license and registration.

“Every time I stop a person of color, they act distant toward me. Ford, 56, described the feeling as being like, “Here’s a White police officer, here we go again. I simply try to be kind, so.

Ford was aware that the halt would be closely examined, and not simply by the reporter who was permitted to accompany him while he worked.

Officers in Warrenton are expected to provide a QR code, which is on the back of their business card, asking for comments on the interaction, following every significant encounter with a resident. Citizens can grade police on their communication, listening, and impartiality through a series of questions and a rating system. In order to encourage people to provide candid evaluations, the responses are anonymous and can be done at any time following the contact. In a relationship that has previously felt one-sided, the Guardian Score program aims to offer people who are stopped by police more control. It also gives police agencies a mechanism to assess their force on criteria other than arrests and tickets.

Burke Brownfeld, the founder of Guardian Score and a former Alexandria police officer, said that if we began to gauge how cops are behaving toward members of the community, we discovered we could actually incorporate this into the whole evaluation process of individual officers. The concept of performing well may evolve. Additionally, it would ask: How are your listening abilities? How fairly, in their eyes, are you treating people?”

There has been no progress in Washington on police reform two years after Floyd’s killing.

The issue of how to reward fair and ethical law enforcement has divided the nation, especially since the police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. President Biden issued an executive order last week that, among other things, called for the development of accrediting criteria for police departments and revisions to their use-of-force guidelines. However, violent crime is on the rise, and many police agencies claim they are already taking many of the measures Biden has suggested. Activists claim that the fight for significant change has reached a standstill.

Chris Ford, a police officer, converses with Andrea Ferrero, the proprietor of Cafe Torino and Bakery, while placing his lunch order. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
Guardian Score proponents express optimism that the new initiative in this Fauquier County municipality may find a balance, promoting police that is both fair and keeps communities secure. Of course, that depends on the cops who distribute the cards and the locals’ comprehension of what they signify.

Ellsworth L.B. Weaver Sr., 82, president of the Fauquier County NAACP branch, stated, “It’s a way of letting the community know that the police are not here to attack you.” They are there to safeguard and assist you.

The initiative started its first pilot in November, but there are still concerns regarding its effectiveness and its applicability in a big city. Only three locations with comparatively low crime rates were using Guardian Score as of May: Warrenton, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The percentage of those who really stop to complete the survey is still low. According to the chief, the response rate in Warrenton is generally little about 10%. According to the heads, it is roughly 20% at VCU and Bucknell.

Warrenton was a convenient starting point in many respects. The overwhelmingly Republican hamlet of around 10,000 inhabitants, located an hour southwest of Washington, is welcoming to police. In this kind of town, homeowners wave from their porches as police cars pass by, and local shop owners know each officer’s lunch preferences. One Italian restaurant even named a salmon dish after Ford.

While police departments across the country have had trouble keeping their officers, the Warrenton department has expanded over the past several years to include 29 sworn officers and three civilian staff members. According to the CEO, more than 140 applicants applied to fill one position last year.

However, the small police force is also ready to put reforms into place. Since Floyd’s murder, Chief Michael Kochis, who left his post as a lieutenant in the Alexandria Police Department before taking the helm in Warrenton, has led a number of innovative projects. For instance, he assembled a group of civic leaders to suggest departmental policy reforms. Chokeholds were prohibited by the department’s use-of-force team long before Virginia’s General Assembly adopted the same, the chief claimed. The squad meets once a month. Additionally, the panel agreed with Kochis’ proposal to pilot Guardian Score and then keep it in place for a year. The $4,500 annual cost of the Warrenton program is covered by a grant from the PATH Foundation, a nearby nonprofit.

After George Floyd was killed, Kochis says, “we learned that engaging the community wasn’t enough. “The neighborhood needed to be involved.”

Officers from the Warrenton Police Department meet with Chief Michael Kochis. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
Kochis claimed that his officers were not pleased when he first told them about Guardian Score last fall. They were concerned that the program would have a detrimental impact on their performance evaluations and that they would receive poor reviews merely for upholding the law. The department had gotten 170 reviews this year as of Wednesday. Each and every one was favorable.

“Sergeant Thomas Kamerer treated me with the utmost professionalism. I didn’t mean to yell at him, but I did after he took care of the problem out of exasperation,” one user commented. “I value his time and the work he does for the neighborhood,”

Another person commented, “Officer Radel was nothing but professional.” I anticipate being stopped by him in the future. Stand up, you.

One citizen said, “Officers Ford and Stewart responded to my auto accident.” “They assessed the situation and took appropriate action in a professional manner.”

The department’s average Guardian Score for the previous six months was 4.94 out of 5, according to a dashboard that was viewable to the chief and examined by The Washington Post.

A similar situation in a neighborhood that has faced with more hostility against law enforcement was reported by the VCU police chief. Student organizations organized demonstrations on campus in 2020 to call for the institution to cut funding and disband its police force. They cited the instance of a 24-year-old VCU alum who was slain by Richmond police in 2018 while going through a mental health crisis. However, as of late last week, of the 244 reviews the department had received, all but one were favorable.

Chris Ford, a policeman of the Warrenton Police Department, talks with his coworkers. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
According to VCU Police Chief John Venuti, the sole review that caused him to express worry was from a person who appeared perplexed as to why they had been stopped by police. Venuti gave a supervisor the task of watching the body camera footage of the event and talking to the officer about it. Kochis declared that he would act similarly in the event of a poor review.

The departments send out emails at least once a month to highlight officers who have received particularly excellent feedback, according to both chiefs, who said they utilize aggregate data from the program as part of their evaluations for officers and to promote thoughtful community involvement.

Ford had earlier that day commented, “I like the idea of it now,” as he drank from the Mountain Dew mug he always has in his cruiser. He admitted that he was first dubious about the program and worried that it might damage his evaluation. “I believe it benefits policemen covertly. It’s a mental examination.

Every time a police stops someone at VCU, Venuti mandates that they hand up their cards, and they must subsequently document that they did so as part of their incident report. When recording an interaction, Warrenton police officers are supposed to give out their business cards, which Kochis added QR codes to. He claimed that when teams receive fewer responses over time, he checks on them. Police at Bucknell are required to provide Guardian Score cards following every interaction lasting longer than a minute, according to the chief. To entice individuals to participate in the survey, each chief emphasized the significance of police providing at least a brief explanation of the initiative.

According to VCU’s Venuti, “we want our officers to take extra time and explain what it is when they give that card to people.” “I want to see us at 40%, pushing and selling it all the way.”

While on duty in Warrenton, Virginia, policeman Chris Ford converses with a fellow officer. (Shuran Huang for The Washington Post)
According to Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, the program may prove to be a potent tool for policing agencies around the nation to gauge the level of officer community participation.

“Police departments are looking for ways to measure how they are doing at a time when many people are questioning police accountability and how police deal with citizens,” he added. This is one of them, too.

Back on Gold Cup Drive, Ford made the decision to only issue the speeding man a warning. He claimed that the $200 additional charge for violating the speed limit in that area was not worth it for the 15 mph infraction.

Ford told the driver, “Please, just do me a favor, take it easy.

The man said, suddenly grinning, “Thank you.

Through the glass, Ford threw his business card out. He made no mention of the feedback program, but the back of his card included the words “SCORE YOUR POLICE ENCOUNTER” in large, blue letters, along with a QR code.

Ford observed the person insert the card into his cup holder.

Now back in the cruiser, he continued, “And that, my friend, is why I don’t get complained on in traffic stops.”

When it was time to clock out, he turned off the blue flashing lights and headed back to the police station. He had not heard back from the conversation more than a week later.

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