Captain Darrell Byers would like to have a word with you. More than one, actually—the Blue Ridge district commander for the Albemarle County Police Department says that conversing with citizens and fellow officers is the best part of his job.
“What I like most is interacting with people,” said Byers. “It always revitalizes me.”
Overseeing police activities for the sprawling district, a 500-square-mile swath of Albemarle from the city boundary westward and from the northern border to Scottsville, Byers’ deep roots in the area give him a unique perspective.
“I grew up in North Garden and went to Western Albemarle High School,” he said, where he was on the football, basketball, and track and field teams. His first job after college at Radford University was as loss prevention manager for the old Leggett department store at Fashion Square mall, followed by a four-year stint at U.Va. “Working at U.Va. was a great experience because we had walking beats, or sometimes on scooters or bicycles, lots of different ways to patrol the Grounds, and we really got to know the mindset of college kids,” said Byers. “Many of the crimes were alcohol-related, and there was quite a bit of bad decision-making going on, so a lot of the job was helping people out of bad situations.”
Moving to the ACPD in 2003, Byers served as the public information officer—the outward face of the department—during a period when the organization was striving for an image change. “We had not been transparent in how we did things and were getting just hammered by the media for that,” said Byers. “One of our first moves was to meet with media and the public to ask what they needed to see.” Some fixes were easy, such as putting out a daily report of who had been arrested on what charges (called a police blotter), while others took more time for a change in culture, such as increasing officer visibility in neighborhoods.
Byers’ dynamic communication skills helped him thrive in the job. “It took a while to repair the damage that had been done from years of closed doors and ‘no comment,’ but we made a lot of progress,” he said. “I also loved highlighting some of the great things that the men and women of the department were doing to help their communities.” He also worked in internal affairs, investigating officer compliance with professional standards, which was an “interesting” tour for Byers. “It’s difficult sometimes to deal with your own, but one good thing is that we were simply fact-finders, and a different office decided on punishment.”
While Byers is a naturally upbeat person, he is clear-eyed about the dangers of his profession. “It’s an inherently dangerous job and with the climate the way it is—we are only a month into the year and already we’ve had six officers killed in the line of duty [nationwide]—you just never know what might happen.” At a recent Crozet community meeting, Byers said that an abiding concern for him was the “unrest in our neighboring jurisdiction,” meaning Charlottesville, because the pursuit of criminals often takes county officers into the city.
“We can definitely count on [city officers] for support in those situations, but the issue now is that their numbers are really being affected,” he said, referring to a recent surge in officer resignations from the Charlottesville police department due to dissatisfaction with pay and a climate of hostility toward police by city residents. “It’s a problem that’s going to affect them for years to come because they are losing veteran officers and replacing them with officers with only one or two years of experience,” he said, “and they just don’t have the knowledge or experience to perform as well.”
In keeping with his focus on the well-being of his fellow officers, Byers consistently emphasizes supporting their mental health in what can be a stressful job. “There have been some alarming trends, unfortunately,” he said. “I think last year there were 150 officers killed in the line of duty across the country, but you can multiply that by 3 or 4 times as to the number of suicides. I want to make sure that I and the supervisors that work on my team are mindful of the issue of depression, and make sure we are looking out for one another daily.”
The ACPD uses Compstat, a statistics-based program that breaks down local and regional crime data to identify trends, to manage resources and prepare for the future. “We’re starting to see a rise in deaths due to opioids, and a huge rise in the use of heroin as opioid dispensing is being cut back,” said Byers. “So when we observe an increase in, say, larcenies, we try to figure out if that might be related to these other trends and how we can best respond to that county-wide.”
As serious as the work is, Byers thinks it’s important to keep a positive attitude, both for himself and for those around him. “We have a lot of fun here, actually,” he said, flashing his infectious grin. “I think that whatever it is you do in life, you should make sure you have a lot of fun doing it, and I try to in this job. I know this is absolutely where I belong.”