Police chief wants to use technology, higher pay to recruit and retain officers

Published 6:57 pm Friday, April 8, 2022

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.

Chandler, who will formally be sworn during a ceremony at 6 p.m. April 25 in the King’s Fork High School auditorium, 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.


Email newsletter signup

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 Part III appears below and was lightly edited for clarity.

SNH: With mental health, you’ve said it’s about being proactive in trying to provide services or having the means for people to access services before it gets to that last resort where your officers are having to step in. 

Chandler: And we’re being proactive with that, so we’re being proactive with identifying citizens that find themselves frequently in crisis and trying to develop plans of action to assist them in getting the help that they need so the police don’t have to keep getting called.

SNH: You’ve talked before about how there’s a lot of time involved with mental calls and that an officer is going to be occupied in that situation, and that’s when mental health professionals step back and you’re what’s left. 

Chandler: The mental health piece is the number one largest drain on law enforcement in Virginia right now. This is an incredible undertaking. The number of mental health calls for service that we respond to far exceeds what happened in the past, and the amount of hours that we have to stay with these people is crippling to our agency, as well as others, just hours and hours and hours, days we are having to stay with people in mental health crisis because there is a shortage of beds in Virginia. And the fact that we have to stay with some people for up to three days is crippling to our agency, so we’re trying to find ways to work through that. And there’s some legislation that’s being worked on in Richmond concerning that, but that is the number one issue that we have to deal with right now.

SNH: Can you give a more tangible way of how it’s increased in terms of the time that your officers have to take on it?

Chandler: The last report that I received is the average mental health call, we took all mental health calls that we have, and the average is 9 hours and 34 minutes.

SNH: I don’t think anybody would realize that.

Chandler: Correct. There are some that may be two or three hours. There are some that are 72 hours where we are stuck at the hospital for 72 hours. I have to supply a police officer, and this can be multiples. So sometimes we may have two, we may have three in the hospital at any given time. So when you see officers sitting in the emergency room, sometimes they’re with people in a mental health situation, and this takes an officer off the street, literally, for an entire shift, sometimes two shifts, three shifts, four shifts, five shifts, until we can find a bed. Wherever that bed is in Virginia, we’re then required to get them there in most cases. So if that’s in Staunton, I have to take an officer and take them to Staunton. If it’s a female or juvenile, it has to be two officers, so this incredibly affects our coverage at a time when, obviously, we’re short officers, but that is the part.

SNH: But you don’t have a choice in that regard.

Chandler: That is our legal responsibility. So now they do have a civilian alternative, but we’re not finding that to be useful to us very frequently. We are getting the benefit of some assistance from the civilian company, but not nearly as much as we would like to see. We try to request it as much as possible, and hopefully it’ll get to be more, but those are just challenges that we have, and that’s a place that I really want to work with. Another one is officer wellness, making sure these officers are taken care of because a healthy, happy officer is going to provide better service.

The pay study, pay plan that we hope will be fully implemented is going to be helpful in making certain that officers understand that the city really does appreciate and respect the professionals that they are. The credentials that many of these offices hold are amazing. We have many officers who are masters at their crafts, have all types of certifications, have degrees, two-year degrees, four-year degrees, master’s degrees, working on doctoral programs. And that is an illustration of the level of officer that we’re getting.

We’re getting some really, really intelligent people. We always have. Suffolk has just got that history. People that decide to get out of this business, oftentimes they have a great deal of options because we’re looking for the best and the brightest and we have absolutely some of the best and brightest personnel that you can find, just some of the ideas that come up, some of the ways that we do things, and this is what we’re looking to cultivate.

I don’t want to train subordinates. I want to train replacements. I want to train people who are ready to step up to the next position. I want to make sure that we keep a force that knows and understands how to lead because we’re all leaders. What we’re leading is what’s different, to be able to take care of the family. One of the functions of the mental health consultant is to be able to not only provide resources to our citizens, but provide resources to our officers. It’s really hard to come out and deal with somebody else’s problem when you’re dealing with a child that has issues, or a wife that has issues, or you have your own issues. These are still people that have regular problems and issues and circumstances like everybody else, so to be able to provide them a resource where they can confidentiality go and receive information is very important.

SNH: Getting back to the mental health piece, how many calls involving mental health do you handle in a year?

Chandler: Off the top of my head, I’m not sure. I would be very comfortable in saying eight to 10 a week at minimum. It’s probably much more, many more than that, but I would be very comfortable saying at least eight to 10 a week. It’s very likely to be more. This is something that we deal with very frequently. If we go a shift without an ECO (emergency custody order), that’s a great day. And you know, it’s just happening, and it happens quickly, and we have to do what we have to and we’re going to do it, but it’s really a challenge.

SNH: Related to traffic, you said you’re trying to leverage technology to help you a lot. 

Chandler: It’s a number of things. I think one of our challenges is we get a great deal of traffic compliance. And we can’t be everywhere at the same. We would love to. You look at Route 58 as a great example. Route 58 has several points where we know speed is a factor. Can I put an officer on all six of those different areas of 58 every day, all the time, so when you ride past, you’ll see an officer?

Route 58/Whaleyville Boulevard is another. Those are places that we have what’s called directive patrols, where we direct officers that they have to spend a certain amount of time in their shift to go, whether it be per day or per week, that, ‘Hey, I want you out here and I want you doing proactive police work, traffic enforcement.’ With everything else going on it’s hard to get that.

And we still write tickets, and we write a lot of tickets. The challenge is being able to answer all the calls for service and continue to provide a quality service, not rush through the call for service, but provide good service and still get back to those traffic-related concerns. One of the things back to technology that we put in place, and I’m not taking any credit for this because my predecessor did this. We have speed boxes, and some of them are obvious. You can see it’s got the board on the side. Some of them you won’t even notice as you ride past and they gauge the speed. They actually give us a report of what the speeds are in that area along with the times of most frequency of speeding.

SNH: You get whatever data that’s available to you, time, date and speed.

Chandler: What time are people speeding the most, what are the speeds that we are seeing, and then we dispatch our personnel based on that information. Sometimes we come back and find out, no, we don’t have a speed problem here. It’s a 35 mph zone and the 85th percentile of speed is 37 mph. That’s not a good use of resources, two miles over. But if it’s the same 35 mph and we see it’s 42 mph, 45 mph, then yes, we’re going to put someone out there and we’re going to affect that situation. So those are things that we try to do to utilize our staffing better, but there are just a lot of locations.

There are a lot of people that are going too fast and I’ve heard many things. I’ve heard people say, “Well, we need to ask the state police for help.” The state police are short people. The state police have a great amount of ground to cover. I was talking to some citizens, and I was talking about (Interstate) 95 and they said, “Well, yeah, they have a reputation all over the East Coast, and you know that if you go through Emporia, they’re going to write you a ticket.” You know what you see when you go to Emporia? Cars pulled over getting tickets, because people are still speeding. So yes, we can make an impact. We definitely can make an impact, and we should, but that’s not going to stop people from speeding. It’s going to slow some people down, but some people are going to continue to speed. So we want to get out there and we want to impact that traffic the best we possibly can, and I think we could do better with that, with more staffing and more time. But we are trying to make those effects, but that is why we are asking for the additional technology to even impact those things.

SNH: What is your staffing level supposed to be, what you’re asking for, and how the compensation study could help with that?

Chandler: We are staffed for 200 police officers. We currently have 165, so we’re 35 officers short at this moment. Now that is a significant number. What we’ve tried to do to absorb that number is take a little from everywhere, so everybody takes a bit of the bite of the apple as opposed to just being uniformed patrol, or the detective bureau takes all of it. That’s been hard. We still operate, but one of the things that is going to help, I believe, is the compensation. The compensation, I hope, will be effective, but it’s not easy pulling in people. It’s not easy at this moment because this is a very dangerous job and obviously, with the legal battles as far as the protections of police officers, who can be sued and how easy it is to sue a police officer.

All those things go into it because in order to effectively do this job, you have to have some protections, and if you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, society will protect you. Legislators are working to answer those questions and make that better. But here, what we’re trying to do is ensure that we have the best technology, ensure that we have the best situation. And I believe we do. We are working really hard to make sure that our officers have the very best that we can provide them because finding good quality police officers is really hard.

With the inflation, the wage hikes are going to be helpful, but also making sure that officers know that, “Hey, if you come to Suffollk, we do a good job of taking care of our people.” We’ve relaxed the tattoo policies, for instance. We are working right now on streamlining the hiring process so it doesn’t take so long to get a person hired. We can’t afford to be in such a hurry to hire someone that we hire the wrong people. But we’re looking at the places that we can do better or more efficiently, and we found some places that we believe will impact that.

That will be a help, something that I have called Recruitment 100. And that is that 100% of our officers recruiting 100% of the time, not just our officers, officers and staff. Wherever you go, whatever you do, this is what I continue to preach, you are recruiting for the Suffolk Police Department. When you’re at that restaurant and that man or woman provides great service, you say, ‘Hey, have you ever thought about being a police officer.” We are offering our staff bonuses for people that they refer to the police department. We’re offering a bonus to those who come and get hired here. $2,500 for new hires and $4,000 for people who are already certified. That is for police officers and for communications operators.

To talk to our friends and families, to talk to our Facebook friends, to talk to people that we know that are interested in being in the business, people that we know are about to come out of the armed forces and say, “Hey, have you considered law enforcement? I know this great place called the Suffolk Police Department, that you might be a good fit,” and to bring good people, the right people, smart people, that we can teach and train and have the right heart to be able to take good care of our citizens.

SNH: The challenge to hire officers is universal. 

Chandler: That’s correct. What you find is those helpful organizations — police, social services, those things have historically been places that you don’t do it for the money. You do it because you love it. And you still have to love it to effectively do it. I absolutely love being a cop. I love this job. I could not think of a better way to have spent the last 23 years. I live, sleep, eat, breathe this stuff. I absolutely love it, and I’m looking for people that can fall in love with this profession.

That being said, people have options and everywhere is hiring, so we have to be competitive in a way that we never had to be. When you look at everything, we have to do a better job off not just putting out our pay. And with this compensation package that we’re hoping gets approved (City Council approved it at its April 6 meeting), our pay is not just going to be comparable, our pay is going to be at the top. We’re going to be up there with those that are at or near the top.

We are the absolute best police department that you can find anywhere, and we should be paid as being the absolute best police department that you can find anywhere. I have the most educated, trained professionals that you can find anywhere in the commonwealth of Virginia. That is my belief. That is my belief and that is why I fight so fiercely to make sure that we’re compensated as such.

It is important that we deliver to our officers, the very best in pay and compensation, and the best equipment, so we have the nicest fleet, we have the nicest computer systems. We make sure all our officers, all our uniform patrol officers, have computers. And they don’t have computers just to have computers. They have computers because our expectations are high.

We expect them to hit the ground running. When they start their shift, they already have the equipment that they need. We make sure that their uniforms are squared away. You don’t have to haggle and fight to get uniform parts and accessories that you need. If it’s worn out, get another one. If it’s not serviceable, get another one because our citizens expect us to be professional. Look professional, speak professionally, work like professionals. You can’t say I want these professionals that are the cutting edge and the absolute best and not provide that.

SNH: How do you address the gun violence in the city? How does it compare to pre-pandemic levels?

Chandler: Well, you know, violence is up some and you see that literally not just across Hampton Roads or across the state but across the country. Keep in mind that many of our interdiction tactics were outlawed. And what I mean by that is a lot of the reasons that we used to use for pretextual stops, we were told we can no longer do those things such as headlight out, brake light out, hanging objects from the rear view mirror. We no longer were able to do those types of traffic stops. Those types of traffic stops oftentimes led to the discovery of contraband.

Obviously, with a lot of national conversation concerning law enforcement, consent searches are way down. Most people will not consent to a search at this point. So if we don’t have probable calls to search, we’re not going to find that contraband. We have a good number of actors that are out there that are carrying guns that should not be carrying guns, in some cases, do not have the legal ability to carry guns, and our ability to find those violators has been sharply diminished by some of the laws that have been enacted in Virginia in the last few years. Now, some of that is being rolled back and, at least, attempts are being made to roll it back and we’ll see how that ends up. But additionally, citizens, in some cases, are less likely to contact us even though they know that a person is carrying a weapon or maybe going to do harm to another. All of those are factors.

And there are factors that we may not necessarily think about because we can’t quantitatively look at them. But all those things are factors along with the fact that people were basically in the house for a very long period of time. Now people are out. Aggression seems to be up. I couple it with driving. The aggressive driving is probably worse than I’ve ever seen it. And so you have that, and you have it everywhere. It’s not exclusive to Suffolk.

SNH: If you’re 35 officers short then you have to be proactive in how you deploy them.

Chandler: I cannot let this close without talking about diversity. I feel like the Suffolk Police Department over the past years has done a good job with fostering diversity. And I want to continue that trend, and so frequently, when we talk about diversity, we just talk about black and white. But I look at diversity very differently because I want this department to be representative of our community, of the city of Suffolk’s community.

I want every member of our community to know that they have equity within this police department, that this police department belongs to them, and they are part of it, and every citizen is a part of this department, because we need them to complete our mission. So to really look at the numbers, my desire is to hire more people who have bilingual capabilities. I think that is important.

I think Spanish-speaking officers, but not only Spanish speaking officers, if we have an Arab population in our city, that whether it’s to visit our city, whether it’s to do business in our city, or whatever the case may be, such as the Asian community, that we be able to deal with any citizen that we have. And we have technology things that will help us with language barriers and so forth, but there’s something about sitting around a room where different cultures are able to chime in that brings about a better process in the end.

I want us to have more people of color in our police department, I want us to have more people of color in high-ranking positions because those are where decisions get made. I do think that’s important and I don’t shy away from that, but that’s not going to take away from the fairness, because at the end of the day, I want the best man, the best woman for the job. But I think as we are looking for talent, we need to be very specific and very strategic about looking for talent and also including other cultures that may not be so drawn to law enforcement without some coaching assistance.