2024-07-19 6:02 AM

Guest Commentary: To Change Police Culture, Officers Need Community Input

As the City of Falls Church Police Chief, I receive comments and feedback from all corners of our community. Some of the wisest and most profound messages have come from our youngest community members. In 2015, a seven-year-old named Rose wrote to me with a simple, outright question: Chief Gavin, what are you doing to make sure black men are safe with our police officers?

I paused and felt the weight of my responsibility, not only as a police officer but as a Chief of Police. Rose was questioning my leadership: I had a seven-year-old holding me accountable for all the actions, policies, and culture of the Falls Church Police Department, and to an extent all police officers and departments around the country; and that is exactly what I needed. During that summer, we witnessed the brutal murder of a black man, Walter Scott, at the hands of a white North Charleston Police Officer. Children watch violent acts like this play out on a 24/7 news cycle and then ask the wisest and most profound questions.

Rose helped motivate me to re-enforce and bolster a path of reform for law enforcement in the City. That same year, President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Taskforce Report was published. Our Police Department took a collective dive into the Report and evaluated our practices, policies, and approach to policing. We committed to the Six Pillars of the 21st Century Policing framework: Building Trust, Policy/Oversight, Technology/Social Media, Community Policing/Crime Reduction, Training/Education, and Officer Wellness/Safety.

(An important side note: The Taskforce has roots to Falls Church. The co-chair was former Falls Church community member, Laurie Robinson, a George Mason University professor and the longest tenured presidential appointee for the U.S. Department of Justice. Whenever I’m lucky enough to speak with Ms. Robinson at policing seminars, she fondly asks about the Little City and wishes us well.)

While we’ve made changes with policy, practices, and external service delivery, the Police Department strives to make continuous improvement to pursue and ensure a cultural shift. 21st Century Policing isn’t just about changing policy and training; it’s about changing police culture into a public safety ethos. One aspect of shifting police culture is opening our organization for community review, for it is the community that upholds the authority which is entrusted to our officers to perform their job.

In June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, City Council created the Use of Force Review Committee to audit Falls Church law enforcement. The committee consisted of community members and City staff (including Police Officers and Sheriff Cay) who volunteered their time and talent to explore the complicated and difficult topic of law enforcement’s use of force, which is one of our government’s most critical functions and greatest responsibilities. For nine months, the committee diligently reviewed City law enforcement’s use of force data, the policies associated with use of force, collected anecdotal data from the public, and developed recommendations. From this body of work, the committee presented the City Council with a comprehensive report at their February 22 meeting.

The beauty of this report is that it is Falls Church specific and is essentially a roadmap for effective and continuous change within our Police Department. The committee’s ten recommendations cover topics such as staffing, training, policy management, and a pathway for continual community input. The Falls Church Police Department is committed to advancing the committee’s recommendations, in collaboration with our City leadership and most importantly, in consultation and partnership with our community. I thank the committee for their service, which ensures that the City’s law enforcement stands on a firm foundation of justice for all people. Also I thank and admire the brave hard working men and women of the Falls Church Police Department that service with a guardian heart and mind.

In the wave of change for restorative justice within the criminal justice system, I believe the most important skill set we need to hone is our listening skills. From community activists to seven year-olds, open your ears and minds to the calls for equal justice and peace for all. As Mary Riley Styles Public Library Director, Jenny Carroll, often reminds me: it’s not only the police that need to change; we need to ensure equality in every aspect of society and especially in our governing systems.

In the spirit of Women’s History month, I would like to thank all the Rose(s), Laurie(s), Jenny(s) Parisa(s), Melissa(s), Cindy(s), Sandy(s), Clare(s), Celeste(s), Nancy(s), Carol(s), Susan(s), Jody(s), Kiran(s) Nicole & Alex(s) and all of the women serving in the Falls Church Police Department that are making a difference in City service. They inspire me to dig deep and seek better solutions for the Criminal Justice System and The Little City to make it a better place to work, play, and live.

Mary Gavin is the Chief of Police for the City of Falls Church Police Department





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