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[View Image] VCUPD Chief John Venuti, right, and Richmond Police Department Deputy Chief Eric English discuss building community trust at last week's diversity and inclusion symposium.

VCUPD chief: U.S. law enforcement ‘needs a new scorecard’

John Venuti and Richmond Police deputy chief discuss building community trust at diversity and inclusion symposium

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People are clamoring to improve trust between communities and the police, even as fatal events across the country widen divisions between law enforcement and the public, Virginia Commonwealth University Police Chief John Venuti said Thursday.

“America is screaming for changes,” Venuti said at a local forum on diversity and inclusion. “As loud as the cries are for change, we continue to see these horrific events — events that happen hundreds of miles away that shatter the trust that people have in regional law enforcement.”

Speaking at the Greater Richmond Society of Human Resource Management and VCU Diversity and Inclusion Symposium, Venuti and Eric English, deputy chief of the Richmond Police Department, discussed steps their departments have taken to improve trust between communities and the police. The symposium brought together public and private organizations to talk about key issues in diversity and inclusion, and also featured a roundtable discussion that included VCU Health CEO Marsha Rappley.

At the heart of the effort, Venuti said, is a style of policing based on understanding local needs. That means increasing demographic diversity among officers and using technology and data to improve effectiveness and transparency.

Ultimately, those healthy relationships between police and communities, that’s where trust is formed.

“As far as inclusion, we try to mirror our community in our hiring practices,” English said. “Sometimes that’s difficult. But it helps you build better relationships and form partnerships.”

Those partnerships with groups, organizations and individual citizens are critical, English and Venuti said. Gone are the days of using only crime data to determine the effectiveness of law enforcement.

“Ultimately, those healthy relationships between police and communities, that’s where trust is formed,” Venuti said. “Measuring crime is an important statistic, but it's not the only thing we need. America needs a new scorecard.”

 

Building trust at VCU

Venuti values data. It helps him measure progress. He recently hired 14 new officers and more than half fall demographically into underrepresented minority groups, increasing diversity in his department.

But building trust goes far beyond changing the demographic makeup of staff, Venuti said. VCUPD has significantly decreased its use of force during his tenure. Patrol officers started wearing body cameras in 2015. Complaints against Venuti’s officers are down. VCU’s campus safety rating is up.

“In 2009-10, there were 74 situations involving the VCU Police Department using force. This year there were 12,” Venuti said. “We’ve seen double-digit decreases in the number of complaints against my officers. In our [spring 2016] campus safety survey, 97 percent of people said they feel safe or very safe on both VCU campuses.”

That safety score would not be as high without strong levels of trust, Venuti said. VCUPD also has implemented unique training methods. Earlier in the week, VCU Police Academy recruits and VCUPD officers participated in a training that uses art analysis to build critical inquiry skills.

“Everyone said, ‘What are we doing in this classroom full of art?’” Venuti said. “The takeaway is if I can change the way that my officers look at things, I’ll change what they see. Is that not the conversation we’re having in America?”

 

‘Different neighborhoods have different concerns’

Venuti and English admit that trust between communities and the police is a fragile thing. Earlier this week, the Richmond Police Memorial Statue in Byrd Park was vandalized with red paint in response to the shooting death of Alton Sterling, who was killed by police in Louisiana on July 5. Sterling’s death sparked nationwide protest against excessive force by the police.

Language and cultural barriers also create distrust, English said.

“For example, you have a lot of people in the U.S. from the Hispanic community who might be here illegally,” English said. “They have a fear of the police because they think anytime they call us we’re going to deport them. We have nothing to do with deportation but they don’t recognize that. They only see a uniform.”

RPD is trying to address this issue by recruiting more Hispanic officers who speak the language and understand the culture, English said.

"We have to build trust because we want them to call us and report incidents that occur in their community,” he said.

The police, English said, are doing more today to address community issues than ever before. RPD has created liaison positions in recent years to work with specific groups, including one for the city’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The department continues to host town hall events alongside civic and government groups to address public concerns.

It is a steep learning curve, he admitted.

“Different neighborhoods and different cultures have different concerns,” English said. “In order for us to bridge the gap between communities, we need to get in there and address those concerns. You have to be inclusive of all neighborhoods and you have to bring more people and cultures into your organization.”

 

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