The Albemarle County Police Department’s decision to go for a “geo-policing” strategy, one where officers largely work in an area they get to know well, sort of like beat cops of old, is a good thing. Lt. Greg Jenkins, responsible for the Blue Ridge District, which covers western and southern sections of the county, recently formed a citizens advisory group that held its first meeting in May. The idea is to improve communication between the citizens and the department, to anticipate crime problems better, and especially to build trust. The police want citizens to tell them more about what we know. This is all good.
But communication, and trust, is a two-way street. In the recent case of the tragic accidental shooting death of Maggie Hollifield at her home in Crozet, police remained tight-lipped in the face of legitimate public questions about the circumstances of her death and especially whether access to the gun involved potentially posed a risk to the public at large. Police even refused to confirm that the shooting was accidental for three days, even though on their crime mapping website they promptly listed it as a case of “negligent manslaughter.” This left gossip at store counters and Facebook postings, some only speculations, to fill in for missing information. Neighbors said what they had heard or heard said. The Gazette has been told various stories, none we consider authoritative because only the police are in a position to accurately explain the facts. But they don’t. A similar case occurred shortly afterward in which a county police officer shot a man in Charlottesville. Since placing the officer on administrative leave, police have made essentially no explanation of what happened.
The implication is that we are supposed to forget about the episodes while the police carry out formal investigations. Most likely—though we don’t know—the basic facts of each case were known immediately and any details that could come to light now will have the status of footnotes. This is not good.
We do not expect the police to tip their hand in pursuing criminal cases or to betray confidences that in fact the public has no right or need to know. But the police must loosen up on their terse possessiveness about what they know and satisfy genuine public anxieties over crime and safety as best they can by offering solid and timely information.
If they expect us to be more open with them, they will have to be more open with us.