Petersburg police complaints lag behind other counties - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

Petersburg police complaints lag behind other counties

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) -

Viral video of a confrontation between Petersburg police and a family on their front porch recorded 10 million views on Facebook in the last three weeks.

Also caught on camera, cell phone video of a California highway patrol officer beating a woman on the side of the road, a deadly police choke hold caught on camera in New York City, and cell video of Petersburg teen Devin Thomas trying to record a traffic stop on a public street. That violent confrontation is now being investigated by Petersburg Police.

"We will do a thorough job in investigating it and come out with whatever the outcome is," Petersburg Police Chief John Dixon said last week.

But the family in the choke hold video said they were originally reluctant to file a complaint with police.

"I don't trust them. How can I call the police when I don't trust the police no more," Debra Fisher said. She went into court without an attorney and was convicted by a judge. The judge found her guilty of obstructing justice.  

The family says they filed a formal complaint six days ago after an attorney offered to help them. That's exactly what concerns Devin Thomas' uncle. He believes these moments caught on camera seem to happen to people who don't know their rights.

"By being black, being uneducated and by us being poor and not having the funds to hire proper legal representation, you know, they prey on that fact and hope on that fact so they can do what they want to do to us," Miles Owanga said.  

Dana Schrad with the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police argues that law enforcement is one of the most regulated and mindful professions. "We take disciplinary actions against whose actions have been questioned. We take that very seriously in this profession because we know these are public officers who have an accountability back to the public," Schrad said.

She says filing a complaint is the first step for anyone not sure what they witnessed or recorded. But, she cautions, let the investigation run its course. "An investigation that's done only by watching a video on You Tube and coming to a conclusion there, I don't think any of us would want our actions to be judged that way," Schrad said.
 
According to open records requests, in 2012, Richmond Internal Affairs investigated 186 citizen complaints. Last year, Henrico looked into 160. Chesterfield police investigated 155 complaints. In Petersburg, where those two high profile cases are playing out, police received only 51 official complaints from citizens last year.
 
Those are small numbers compared to the thousands of calls each of those agencies get each year. How many of the complaints are found to be true depends on the agency.

In Richmond, only 12 percent of the complaints in 2012 were substantiated. In Henrico last year, 51 percent of allegations were supported by evidence. Chesterfield decided 47 percent of the complaints were true, and the county even broke down it down further. Most of those substantiated complaints were for neglect of duty and officers not showing up to court. In Petersburg, 23 percent of complaints were founded. That's just 12 cases.

What happened to the officers involved in these complaints? You'll never actually find out unless criminal charges are filed. Any disciplinary action taken is considered private under Virginia law. But if there's serious misconduct, the punishment is often more severe than in other professions.

"It usually leads to some kind of disciplinary action that may result in retraining, may result in demotions in rank, sometimes results in termination from service. A law enforcement officer who loses his job due to misconduct has a very hard time getting in that career path again," Schrad said.

In the end, filing a complaint starts a paper trail and it's your first line of defense if your case ends up in court. Investigations usually take anywhere from 30 to 45 days. Some police agencies allow you to file your complaint online. Sometimes you have to go into headquarters to file.

Copyright 2014 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved.

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