‘Fast and furious’ time for police chief since interim title removed

Published 7:17 pm Friday, April 1, 2022

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The Suffolk News-Herald recently sat down with city Police Chief Al Chandler as he answered questions for about two hours on a range of issues — his vision and goals for the Suffolk Police Department, the George Floyd killing and how that has affected policing, decertification, the shortage of officers within the department, its increased use of technology in policing, challenges in dealing with mental health cases and more.

Chandler, who began working for the city’s police department in 1999, became interim chief June 15, 2020, and on Jan. 6, he had the interim tag removed.

The interview was lightly edited for clarity and will appear as part of a series.

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SNH: You’re close to the three-month mark since the interim tag was taken off of you. Is there a difference for you now in having been the interim chief for so long versus now being the full chief? 

Chandler: Well, obviously there’s a difference in … the fact that we can really start to move in a direction. As interim, really the function is to hold the wheel, to lead and guide until someone comes in and sets the vision. I knew it was going to be a full process and a fair process, so it was kind of no telling how it was going to turn out until it ended. So there were a lot of things that I could not really move forward on because there may be someone to come in with a different vision and different view. It is good to finally have that finality where we as an organization can begin to all move in the same direction.

SNH: Talk about the past three months since having the interim tag removed.

Chandler: It’s been good. It’s been fast and furious. We have a lot of work to do. We’re in an interesting time in history where there are a lot of challenges to law enforcement, which that challenge almost makes it fun, because it’s very difficult right now to attract people to this profession. It’s very difficult to figure out exactly how to move forward, but I think the Suffolk Police Department is doing a good job, seeing the places that we can get better and developing plans of action to move forward in the right direction. We’ve had a very good history of really good leaders and visionaries who’ve gotten us up to this point and now as we are in this change of time, if you will, in law enforcement. Now we’re moving forward in slightly different directions than law enforcement has moved.

SNH: When they named you interim chief, it was at a time, not just in the city but just society in general, where there’s a lot of upheaval, at a time we had heard about George Floyd in Minneapolis and other things that happened across the country and galvanized in a lot of calls for action, a lot of rallies, a lot of protests, including here in the city. What was that like coming into that in an interim capacity — maybe not being able to put your own stamp on things but seeing some things that, if you do get to be full chief, you could go ahead and do? 

Chandler: I think what made my time of being interim different and very challenging was the fact that I couldn’t afford to just hold the wheel. There were so many changes in law enforcement at large that we had to rise to the occasion. There were things that we really needed to look at and address.

The George Floyd incident changed policing forever, and I think at the end of the day, we’re going to find out it changed policing for the good. Is it difficult? Yes. Did it come with some consequences that were not so good? Yes, it did. But change is often difficult. Even if you try to make something better, sometimes it feels a little worse before you can see the benefit.

What the George Floyd situation did for law enforcement was it shined a light on places like Suffolk, where you really do have a good police department that tries to do everything they can do to follow the rules. It showed that we still have places where we need a lot of help, and we had citizens that came up and that talked to us as an agency, and me personally, specifically, and said we want things in place to make sure that never happens here. And you can look back at our track record and see all the things that we put in place to try and make sure that we didn’t have situations like this. But a lot of those things our citizens did not realize, or did not know.

Our robust body camera policy, chokeholds were a big conversation. I attended the Chesapeake Police Academy. I was hired onto the city of Suffolk in April of 1999. When I went to the police academy in 1999, chokeholds were automatic failures in defensive tactics. They were not accepted in 1999 by this department. So for over 20 years, we have had no chokeholds accepted in the city of Suffolk, but due to the national conversation, people didn’t understand that. So that gave us an opportunity to educate people of the things that we had done over the years to make sure that these things don’t happen in Suffolk.

SNH: Beyond that, what kind of other things were you able to educate people on that they may not have realized? 

Chander: We’ve had a chance to educate the public on a lot of what we do, a lot of who we are. One thing is the fact that the vast majority of the complaints that we investigate in our internal affairs division come from members of the Suffolk Police Department. We police ourselves. So among officers — officers and supervisors — we don’t wait for citizens to say that we did something wrong. If we see that we did something wrong, it’s always been, ‘Hey, I’ve got to say something. That’s the culture. The culture is, I can’t allow this to happen and not say something.

The vast majority of our complaints come from us, not from citizens — citizens complain, yes — and we don’t get it right every time, but we try. One of the other really big things is that we are people, and people make mistakes. So we realize that we don’t do everything correctly. We also realize that as human beings, for men and women of this agency, we have feelings, we have emotions, we have family members that care about us. We have fears, we have concerns, and all of those things, we have to try to harness to do this job effectively.

And oftentimes, citizens may not think of us as people. We are often the only entity of government that they feel that they have a chance to speak to. So we have to absorb someone that’s angry with the Democrats, or angry with the Republicans, or angry with pro-choice, or pro-life or angry with civil unrest, angry with whatever is happening as far as the government is concerned. We are the only entity of the government that they have personal encounters with regularly. So we have to begin to try to absorb that.

But in that, I think it’s important that our citizens know and understand that the men and women that are out there to protect and serve do have feelings, and we do have emotions, and no matter how professional we are, it’s hard to hear how terrible you are and how horrible you are and it not get to you. Sometimes hearing that, citizens begin to look at it from a different perspective.

SNH: Do you think that the more you have personal interactions with people even in tense situations, that they’ll lead to a better relationship, if not a friendly one then at least one of mutual respect? 

Chandler: Absolutely. I think communication and conversation is the key to fixing many of the woes of our society. We will not always agree, but when there is enough respect to know that, Officer Friendly is a good guy, she’s a good lady, she’s not making me happy right now, but we have a relationship, the general person, the normal person can accept negative information from someone they have a relationship with better than a stranger. So the more our citizens know and understand that this police department is theirs, they’re not only part owners of this police department, they are part of this police department.

Our success is predicated on our relationship with our citizens. As we talk more with our citizens, as we communicate with them more, they have a better understanding of what the law is, and what our abilities are within that. So I think that’s huge. I think it’s huge for our officers to know and understand that oftentimes, we go into conflict and someone is not going to be happy with us at the conclusion of that event. If I have two citizens who disagree about a thing, we can try to bring them to some kind of common ground. But ultimately, someone may leave not happy with us in most of the things we respond to. And the more that we as officers take our personal opinions, personal feelings, out of the situation, the more the conversation is about the law and the legal system and not about us personally.

When you see a lot of this bad behavior, we can trace it back to many things. But often bad behavior — I’m talking about bad behavior from police officers — it’s because the police officer got to a point where he took it, or she took it, personally. Those things happen.

Other things that are major contributing factors are just simply mistakes being made, and our mistakes can cost lives. So we have to train better, we have to prepare better, we have to make sure that every possible way we try to make certain that everything we do is as close to perfect as we can humanly get it.