Keeping the Suffolk Police Department on the ‘cutting edge’ of technology, police chief looks to make it a ‘force multiplier’

Published 5:43 pm Tuesday, April 5, 2022

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The Suffolk News-Herald recently sat down with the city Police Chief Al Chandler, who had been the interim chief for more than a year before becoming the permanent chief in January.

He answered questions about a range of issues.

In this part, he addresses issues regarding the department’s perception among the public, the decertification of officers, the use of technology in policing, a proposed new Suffolk Police training center in Whaleyville and mental health calls.

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Part I of the interview appeared in the April 3 print edition and can be read here.  Part II of the interview appears here and was lightly edited for clarity.

SNH: In a sense, you can do things right 98% of the time, but the 2% you get something wrong, people get upset and then there’s this idea that there’s a bias, or you’re being careless, but even in that 98%, you know you can still do better. 

Chandler: Here’s one of the big differences that I carry over from this particular, what I’ll call the George Floyd era, is, taking that same 98% of the time we get it right and 2% we get it wrong,  dialing in and looking at that 2%, you realize that that 2% can cost somebody their life. That 2% can cost someone their freedom. That 2% can cost someone their job. That 2% can cost someone custody of their children. That 2% can change a life.

In the vast majority of cases, it really doesn’t. It just hurts feelings, but in that, that erodes our citizens’ belief that we’re capable of making the big decisions that do change lives. So drilling down and trying to get that 2% down to 1%. And when we get to 1%, trying to get to a half percent, when we get to a half percent, try to get to a quarter percent. That is what makes a great organization. We may never get to 1%, but we should never stop trying.

SNH: And you’re trying to make sure that people have an accurate perception of who you are as a department, what your values are and what you’re aiming to do within the law that you’re trying to uphold. 

Chandler: Correct. One of the things that we try to show, and keep in mind is, let’s take the George Floyd situation as a great for instance. The officer that created that situation, that committed those criminal acts against that citizen, irregardless as to what his background was, irregardless to anything else, we didn’t do what we were supposed to do. We didn’t do the right thing. And look what it caused. It caused a great deal of civil unrest and it caused a mistrust of police to grow.

One bad decision can cost us so much in this career, and we’ve got to keep that in mind. It didn’t just cause civil unrest. It didn’t just cause a mistrust of police; it actually caused people to no longer want to do this job. It caused people who would have wanted to do this job, very talented, very intelligent people who would like to do this job, to decide that they wanted to do something else.

Because many people question inside and outside of law enforcement, “Are we still the good guys? Are we still the heroes? Are we still the ones that are doing the right thing?” And we’ve got to get in front of that and say, yes, we absolutely are. And the fact that we have bad actors, the fact that we have people that make poor choices and bad decisions, likely won’t change. But what can change is our response to these things. And of all the police officers that I know, of all the people in the business that I know personally, I have not found an officer, a person, a manager, a supervisor, to say that those actions were correct. I’ve not found anyone that will stand behind those actions. And that is not normal operating procedures in a vast majority of places. And we have to continue to say that. That is not the norm. That is not what we accept, and our citizens are going to know that by us continuing to show that, not just say it, but continuing to show that, hey, we’re going to everything that we possibly can to avoid violent encounters.

We’re going to train more; we’re going to prepare more. I don’t believe we will ever in this country get away from violent encounters happening because we have citizens that will do harm to police officers and others to forward their criminal actions. And it’s our duty and responsibility to combat that. When we can do that in a non-tactical way, we should, every time, but if it requires a tactical conclusion, we should be fully capable and ready to bring it to a tactical conclusion and use only that amount of force necessary to effect that arrest, or neutralize that threat. That has to be how we operate every single day, in every single situation. That is always the goal.

SNH: You brought up something that people’s perceptions of your department may not have anything to do with any action that your department undertook and with situations like the one with George Floyd and others affecting potential officers from becoming part of the profession or affecting the perception of police officers. 

Chandler: And we look at those cases, those national cases that come out, and some that don’t come out nationally. We talk about this and we look at our policies and we look at our actions and what we do, and how we respond to things, because there’s always something to learn. There’s always things that you can learn from the majority of these situations. We come to it, and we see, no, we’ve already put something in place to make sure that never happens. But occasionally, we may find something and say, “OK, well, we need to enhance our policy, or we need to advance our training.”

We look at our training every single year to see what things we can do better, what new trends are out there. We look at our policies every single year to make sure that our policies are up to date and are relevant, and that we are keeping to our policies to make certain that that is the way we’re operating. These are things that we do regularly because every situation, no matter how bad, we need to do what we can do to learn from it.

SNH: A lot has been made of the decertification of officers, and the fact that that process has been expanded, and Suffolk officers were among those decertified. How does that help with the trust factor — that there is a process and people understand that there will be a consequence for an officer’s behavior whether it’s something domestic that turned criminal, or something internal where there’s an investigation they weren’t truthful about?

Chandler: Well, our stance has not changed. The law has changed. But ever since I’ve been here, one of the rules that you knew, one of the things that you knew were definite and constant was, if you did not tell the truth, you would be terminated. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that. If you are caught not being truthful at the Suffolk Police Department, you will not keep your job and that has been proven at many levels within this department, historically.

What has changed is the Department of Criminal Justice Services has now said, “OK, with that information, now we’re going to decertify people based on certain things.” That has not changed our operating procedure because we were doing that anyway. If you came from another jurisdiction, anyone who wanted to transfer here from another jurisdiction, we’re going to look and find out why they separated from that other jurisdiction. If it was for not telling the truth, if you committed certain crimes, then we weren’t going to hire you anyway, so it never changed our actions. This was already put in place with us.

The expansion of DCJS, which I highly agree with, causes the Department of Criminal Justice Services to decertify people who commit these acts so they cannot get a job anywhere else.

SNH: Or at least in Virginia. 

Chandler: But I think these things are serious enough and egregious enough. I mean, the bottom line is police officers have to tell the truth. I have to know that the officers are telling the truth, and if I have questions on their credibility, then citizens are going to have questions on our credibility. Jurors are going to have questions on our credibility.

And … as an officer, you spend years and years building your credibility in court, it can be one case, one day of testimony, that could destroy 10, 20, 30 years of credibility building by you not telling the truth. It is that serious, and we’ve got to hold that line. Now, that may be relaxed one day. It will not be relaxed as long as I sit in the chair.

SNH: Shifting from this to more Suffolk-centric issues that you have to deal with. You have the opportunity now, as the full chief, to lay out your vision for the department and for how you want it to operate. Talk a little bit about some of those things, the initiatives that will be a part of your vision as you go forward.

Chandler: So a huge thing for me is technological advances and force multipliers. Suffolk has some of the best equipment you can find in the area. I want to continue that. I want to make sure that we are on the cutting edge of technology. Our technological infrastructure, I want to continue to build and develop.

We are bringing in a smarter, more technologically advanced young officer. Just by the way of how young people communicate, the way of doing things is changing. The online reporting is a perfect example, where years ago that wouldn’t have been a great thing, but now, a lot of citizens really prefer the online reporting where, if your trash can gets stolen, or some minor case, you can go online and input information and from there, you are able to report that criminal interaction without having to call a police officer in. When we get that information, if we find something that, hey, this is something that we’ve got to investigate here, we assign it to somebody to investigate. That helps us gain more information without actually having to send out an officer in many cases.

The Flock safety cameras are a perfect example. We can’t have police officers everywhere, but the cameras can assist us to be able to tell the story in different places to be able to identify if a particular vehicle is a suspect of a particular crime passed this location or this location. The other cameras that we have, that we’re requesting, that we’re planning to get, as far as red-light cameras, as far as school bus cameras to catch people going past the school bus when the school bus is stopped, speed cameras in the school zones and in work zones.

We have a lot of schools in our city, and to have a police officer working traffic every day at each one of those schools is just not possible. This allows us some opportunities to utilize technology as a force multiplier. So now I can be dealing with all of these different areas and I can put one or maybe two officers in charge of reviewing each one of these violations, and we multiply our effectiveness.

Looking at technology from all different kinds of ways, one of the things that has been a vision of mine, I’m seeing it come to pass now, is for us to have our own training facility, a location where we can do training — and we do a great deal of training already; we have a training room here and we have roll call/training room in each one of our buildings, but that’s for in-class training, but those are multipurpose areas. We’ve acquired a location in Whaleyville where we’re actually going to be able to have training. We have purchased a system called the MILO system, which is basically a large octagon — it’s about the size of a room, and the officer is able to walk into this system, and it has screens basically all the way around, putting that officer in, basically, a virtual game, if you will.

SNH: Like a simulator. 

Chandler: A simulator. That’s exactly what it is. And we are able to work on things such as de-escalation, such as lethal decision-making, which weapon needs to be utilized. Is there a better choice? Is there a way out? Is there an ability or a way to not utilize force? And, a big thing in that training is the preparation for the potential for force encounters.

I believe in my heart of hearts, if an officer is ready, increasing our readiness is a big thing that I want to do. Are we good? Yes. We are a good department, but good is the enemy of great. I want us to reach greatness, and reaching greatness requires us to be better, to be better trained, to be better with readiness, to be better with equipment, to be better all the way around. That’s a tall order, but I know we can do it.

Mental health is a big thing, as far as my platform, what I want to see change, what I want our department to do. I think we do a great job responding. I really do. I think our officers do a really good job. I watch a lot of videos of our officers after the fact to see how we have handled situations. And I am very pleased that the care that we take with our mental health population, the care and concern that we regularly show not just with the person in mental health crisis but even with the families and supports around them, getting a mental health consultant with our department — I know a lot of other places are looking at going out and responding, and, OK, a mental health person needs to do this.

One of the things that I think may be lost on a lot of people is when things become a force encounter, those mental health professionals back out, and the police are still there to handle any type of force encounter. My thought process, my belief is, we need to be dealing with these mental health crises before police are called. And our consultant is specifically focusing on just that, trying to provide family members with options and alternatives and connecting them with resources before we get called.

So if you’re dealing with a citizen that oftentimes will stop taking their medication, and that will cause behaviors, then let’s talk to, maybe the caregiver. Let’s talk to the person, the roommate, whoever is there and say, “Hey, are you contacting the people that can help them with that prior to them getting to a point where they’re so dangerous,” that there are people that care for them that can’t handle them. If we can get them services prior to that, then you usher the police out before they ever get there because generally, in a mental health situation that we respond to, we’re the last resort.

In many, many cases, things have gotten so bad that those who may care for that individual or live with that individual, near that individual, are now afraid because it’s gotten to a point where somebody could get hurt and that’s when we come in. So the probability of it being a violent encounter is so much higher because it’s gone so far. If we can interrupt that beforehand, then you usher the police out of that system.