SPECIAL REPORT: Policing the Police
LYNCHBURG, Va. (WSET) -- They are sworn to protect and serve and use their training to make split second life or death decisions.
But, with a lens focused on so many negative encounters, many now see policing in a different light. Social media has put wearing the badge up close and personal.
All of it is causing police departments across the nation to rethink how they police and Lynchburg is among them. "I'm not sure the law enforcement profession has always been that transparent. And I think now the profession is starting to learn that is crucial," said Lynchburg Police Deputy Chief Todd Swisher.
Swisher leads the Lynchburg Police Department's Community Policing Advisory Group that formed in 2015. "Certainly providing services in any community requires a partnership between the police and the community. That's what this is," Swisher said.
One of the things The Advisory Group tries to understand is what it's like to be a cop.
A simulated virtual exercise where a gunman is terrorizing a school puts members in the shoes of officers.
It's an adrenal rushing scenario. "The officers range of emotions, just like the people who are there, are from here and back and everywhere in between," said Major Ryan Zudema with LPD.
25 people from various backgrounds make up the Advisory Group. "We're concerned that our kids, we know that they're going to be treated differently, because we're treated differently." remarked one unidentified African-American member when the group met a few weeks ago.
"On our website we go through what to do when stopped by the police. Whether it's a traffic stop, or just a person stopped," said Swisher.
The discussions between the racially and economically mixed Advisory Group are open and honest. "I was in New York and I was driving through a neighborhood and I was stopped for driving through a neighborhood. It was an all-white neighborhood.," said an African-American woman in the group.
Transparency and awareness are key to helping both sides see things differently, though. "Nationally, we have seen where particularly, people of color, African American men, have complied and still ended up in a body bag," one woman said at the meeting.
LPD is equipping officers with body cameras; soon everyone on the force will have one.
"How will the community know that just because we have body cams it will not always translate into release of a video?," a member of the group asked.
LPD Police Chief Raul Diaz was at the meeting, "Ultimately, we're going to decide what's best for this community. If that means releasing the video, that means releasing the video," he said.
But, police officers must adapt to all kinds of changes.
The Advisory Group knows that and is trying to help bridge any real or perceived divides in the community. "I was born and raised here. And I want to make sure Lynchburg stays ahead of problems that occur in policing nationally," said Kevin Bryant, a member of the group and a white male.
It is a work in progress to look at things differently, "the members of the committee are very vocal and the police are open to listening to our ideas and have actually implemented our ideas," remarked Gloria Witt. Witt is African-American.
And while the group isn't allowed to set policy or recommend punishments when police officers are guilty of wrong-doing, everyone agrees that strides are being made when it comes to policing the police. "You develop that trust through continued, consistent engagement and relationships. And that's what we invest very heavily in," said Swisher.
The Lynchburg Police Department said over the last seven years, there's an average of at a little more than 36 assaults on police officers every year.
This year, LPD is on pace to see about 52, which is a 44% increase.