The Albemarle County Police Department has opened a satellite office in space offered to them in Old Trail, a move that allows officers to do office work without having to return to police headquarters in Charlottesville, Chief Ron Lantz told a small crowd who came out to meet him at Crozet Library for a question and answer session August 16.
Lantz took over the chief’s duties from former chief Steve Sellers in June. He has been with the department since 2012, joining it the first day the department went into its geopolicing program, which assigns officers to specific geographical areas where they are encouraged to become acquainted with residents and build community ties. He had spent the previous 24 years in the Fairfax County police force and was commander of its Fair Oaks station, which covered 125,000 residents with a geopolicing strategy.
“We enjoy a great relationship with our community,” Lantz said. “We are often told how much we’re appreciated. But we’ve lost 16 officers since January. Some decided they didn’t want to be in law enforcement after watching TV [and seeing police officers targeted for assassination].”
The department is authorized to have 140 employees and currently has 129, he said. The department currently has five officers in training at the Central Shenandoah Valley Police Academy. Lantz said he will only offer jobs to the best qualified. The county is 10 percent African American, he noted, but black officers make up five percent of the force, so adding black officers is a recruiting goal, as is adding Hispanic officers.
“Staff is working a lot of overtime,” Lantz said. “We’re getting fatigue on the department.”
Lantz said the opening of the new, state-of-the-art shooting range at Milton is a milestone for the department that will allow better training and more proficiency.
He said the range is a step toward opening a central Virginia police academy. “Our goal is our own academy on this side of the mountain.”
“Only 3 percent of our applicants are accepted,” he said. “I’m going for 2.8 percent to get the best of the best. If we get three to five years [employment] out of an officer, that’s a bonus. They don’t stay as long as officers in the past. Pay is an issue. The cost of living in Albemarle is high. We’re doing exit interviews now to find out why they leave. Morale is an issue. Dallas and Baton Rouge [murders of officers] broke our hearts. It’s a tough time to be a police officer now.
“It may take us two years to get back to 140,” said Lantz. “The normal attrition rate is eight officers a year. About 50 applicants will show up for the basic interview. We’re losing people in the background checks. Any moral turpitude is a no-go. They’re not going to be a police officer.”
Among his staffing goals are a domestic violence detective and a full-time detective for online child predators. “I’m adjusting to not having the teams we had in Fairfax. We’re not big enough to need them. We live in a safe community. Our biggest problem recently was robberies. Stakeouts and detective work led to arrests.
“Geopolicing should draw more applicants. My question to applicants is, ‘Speak from the heart: when you watch the news why would you want to be a police officer?’ Some say, ‘I want to prove that’s not what police are.’ They are attracted to community policing, to being out in the community. We count how many community events officers attend. We have officers speak to groups to build up their confidence. What if they don’t get on board? Then they come to my office and we dust off their resumé.
“My dream is 150 officers.” The department had a staff of 107 when he arrived, he noted. The goal is to hire seven officers a year.
Another training goal is a high percentage of officers trained to handle mental illness situations. “About 50 percent of officers are trained with mental illness crisis situations,” Lantz said. “The goal is 70 percent, but attrition has hurt that. It’s a big deal for me. We want officers trained to de-escalate situations. Officers have to have some experience before the training becomes effective.”
Asked about military–style policing, Lantz said, “We want to get away from the warrior mindset to the guardian mindset. But in a Dallas situation you still need the warrior mindset. I’ll give an officer every tool I can to keep him safe.
“There’s got to be a need for military equipment before I’ll get into it. I’m not a fan of knocking down doors. Too many things can happen. I like to get them when they’re away from the house. We’re stringent here before we deploy a SWAT team.
“We’re guardians up front, but we’re still warriors behind that. We’re going to lock up the bad guys.”
The department has a long-term goal of decentralizing operations, he said about the satellite office in Crozet, which officers will not staff but occasionally drop in at. The office is expected to be open on October 1. The 850-square-foot office is offered to the department free and allows officers a place for bathroom breaks and to eat meals.
A staffed station will most likely open first in the Hollymead area, Lantz said. “Most of our calls are in the ‘urban ring’ around Charlottes-ville. We have a satellite office at Fashion Square Mall now.” A station can dispatch officers to calls. A satellite office is a part-time office.
“Community engagement and transparency are number one, particularly in at-risk neighborhoods,” Lantz said.
He said crime in the rural areas is typically a daytime break-in or roaming scammers. There were 85 calls for service in the Crozet area in the last 30 days and 30 were for vehicle accidents, he said. The worst were four minor larcenies. “Our worst crime in Old Trail,” he said, “is kids smoking pot on the pathways. The way you can help, as we say, is ‘when in doubt, call us out.’”
Lantz lives in Old Trail himself. “I love the community. That’s why we live here. I truly enjoy it. They know what we want to order when we come in the door at Crozet Pizza and Fardowners.”