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Public safety issues aired
At meeting with city prosecutor, police chief
Martinsville Commonwealth’s Attorney Clay Gravely (standing above) and Martinsville Police Chief Sean Dunn spoke and answered questions from city residents at a town hall meeting Gravely hosted at Albert Harris Elementary School on Wednesday evening. The two discussed local law enforcement. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
Cooperation between the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, the Martinsville Police Department and the community is crucial to the success of all three, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Clay Gravely.
Gravely and Police Chief Sean Dunn spoke and answered questions from city residents Wednesday evening at a town hall meeting Gravely hosted at Albert Harris Elementary School.
Other city officials in attendance included Lt. Robert Fincher, Officer Coretha Gravely and Captain Marshall Thomas of the police department and Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Andrew Hall.
About 50 people attended the meeting, and many had questions or comments for the city officials. The majority were directed at Dunn. These included:
• Martinsville-Henry County NAACP President Naomi Hodge-Muse asked Gravely if he had taken a different approach to prosecution against first offenders than that of his predecessor in the office, Joan Ziglar.
Gravely said that first offender cases are treated on a case-by-case basis. There is no “across-the-board policy,” he said.
He added that there is a significant difference between a first offender possessor of marijuana or cocaine and a first offender burglar.
However, he said, under the city’s first offender program, “if you are a first offender for shoplifting or possession of marijuana, you have an opportunity to demonstrate to the court that you would comply with certain conditions, potentially drug treatment, and you’ll do an educational program and be taken under review. At the end of that review, if you’ve done everything you’re supposed to do, the court will consider dropping it, and usually does. This actually applies to possession of cocaine as well.”
If that first offender returns to the system for a subsequent charge, however, “it’s a different story,” he said.
Hodge-Muse also requested that Dunn be cognizant of police brutality issues and advise his officers to use restraint when dealing with residents.
“Everybody in Martinsville and Henry County is related,” Hodge-Muse said. “If you make one enemy, you’ve made 20, 30, 40 or 50. But when you make one friend, you’ve made 20, 30, 40 or 50. When it comes to excessive force, I truly, truly pray that you are talking to your people and training them ... (to) use as much restraint as you possibly can. Make that a priority in your conversations.”
Thomas pointed out that the city police department not only uses in-car cameras, but also body-worn cameras. These cameras, Thomas said, not only protect police officers but also citizens, as every interaction that officers have with the public is recorded.
Clay Gravely added that the cameras are helpful for his office because they leave “no question about what really happened.”
• Area resident Tony Jones asked Dunn if the city police department would be willing to support a Police Athletic League (PAL), an organization in which the department helps coach young people and supports them in sports and other activities.
Dunn said that a crucial part of community policing is creating relationships with young people in the community, and that he and the department would be more than willing to support youth activities.
He said the police department he previously had worked for in Portsmouth had a PAL, and that even for a larger department, the time investment was difficult.
However, he said, different forms of youth outreach remained a priority for the department.
Clay Gravely said youth outreach is key to preventing crimes, because criminals generally are set on the wrong path in their early teenage years. He said that he recently had attended a conference on gang prosecution, and the speaker said most smaller gangs attempt to recruit 14 and 15 year olds.
• An area resident asked what the police department’s policy is regarding Tasers in light of the 2009 death of a city teenager after he was stunned by a Taser.
Fincher said following that incident and Taser-related deaths worldwide, the rules regarding when to use Tasers — also known as the “use of force continuum” — and rules regarding where Tasers should be aimed have been adjusted.
The department and individual officers have restricted their use of Tasers accordingly, Fincher said.
• A resident asked Dunn what the police department’s hiring policy is regarding minorities and if the department will hire officers from outside the area.
Dunn said that he felt the police department “should be representative of the community it serves,” though achieving that goal is not always simple. However, he said, he hopes that moving forward, more minority officers can be added to the department, and that the department is always looking for the best possible candidates.
Dunn added that the department is willing to hire from outside the area, as he himself originally is from Portsmouth.
Thomas added that he works to recruit officers in the community, including from within his own family. One of his nephews applied to the department, he said, though he ended up taking a position in Charlottesville.
• Attorney Perry Harrold told Dunn that he recently had begun seeing an unmanned city police car parked in different areas of the city. He asked Dunn where the police car was being left and why it was being left at those locations.
Dunn said that police car was left in locations where area residents had requested more of a police presence and where there had been a large number of citizen complaints regarding crime. He added that the car had been placed on Church Street, Fayette Street, Pony Place, Beaver Street and Commonwealth Boulevard, among other locations.
Harrold asked Dunn if the car had been placed in the Mulberry area. Dunn said that to his knowledge, it had not.
Harrold told Dunn that Martinsville is split into predominately black and predominately white communities, and the police car seemed to be disproportionately located in black communities. He asked Dunn why that was the case.
“To be perfectly honest, it was my impression that this community would like to see extra presence,” Dunn said, speaking of the Fayette Street community.
“Maybe I was mistaken in my assumption.”
The majority of town hall meeting attendees voiced their disagreement, saying “no, you weren’t” and “you were right,” among other comments.
Throughout the meeting, several residents said that they felt the car should be put in areas where citizens had requested a greater police presence. One resident said that he had lived on Fayette Street many years, and 30 years ago, there was virtually no police presence in the community.
Harrold later clarified that his greater point was that police presence should be shared equitably across the entire city and not localized to specific areas.
• Jennifer Bowles, who recently announced her candidacy for Martinsville City Council, asked Dunn what his assessment of the department was after two months as police chief.
Dunn said that is is clear to him that Martinsville has a great department “that cares very much about the community.”
He said that he is working to restructure the schedules of police officers to better serve the community. If a resident calls 911 during a busy period and has to wait an extra five minutes for an officer, “there’s no excuse for a delay.”