Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring on Tuesday launched a statewide training initiative to assist police in appropriately using force, de-escalating dangerous situations and recognizing potential biases they may bring to the job.
At a news conference in Arlington, Herring said he was motivated to act over the last year after rioting in Ferguson, Missouri and in Baltimore. He acknowledged that Virginia has had incidents of its own that have called into question whether police have used excessive force or might be targeting minorities.
In Fairfax County, a former police officer faces murder charges for the 2013 shooting of Springfield man John Geer - prosecutors say the officer shot Geer during a prolonged domestic standoff while Geer held his hands above his head. Also in Fairfax, the county sheriff is reviewing the actions of deputies who shot a mentally ill, African-American inmate four times with a stun gun while trying to remove her from her cell. She later died.
In explaining the need for the training, Herring cited national statistics about the increased likelihood that African-Americans will be pulled over for traffic stops, among other data.
"It's clear that, as a nation, we have more than a perception problem,'' he said. "It's hard to acknowledge, but it's even harder to experience.''
Herring said the training - covering bias awareness, professionalism, use of force, de-escalation and impartial policing - won't be mandatory but will be available to existing officers and new recruits at police agencies across the state. He said agencies are eager for the opportunity.
"The research shows that when people are able to identify the biases they have, that they're able to change how they approach situations,'' Herring said.
He also said the training exercises can expose officers who are unwilling or unable to change their approach, which helps supervisors identify those who might need corrective action.
The Fairfax County Criminal Justice Academy in Chantilly has already began to emphasize the skills the attorney general is highlighting, Lt. Chantel Cochrane said.
"We have started moving things forward. Some of the core curriculum -- Constitutional law, de-escalation," she said. "Some of the core things that have always been always in our academy throughout have been moved to the front of our academy."
The training is set to offered state-wide next spring.
Shirley Ginwright of the Fairfax County NAACP said she wanted to see changes as soon as possible.
"There's something that needs to be done and implemented a lot quicker," she said. "You don't have to implement an entire program at one time. Prioritize the pieces you need."
Herring said he did not know how much the program would cost -- he said is office will solicit bids shortly for contractors to develop and provide the training materials that can be implemented at local police academies. The attorney general's office will also on its own host and pay for multiday training sessions for veteran officers across the state to undergo the training.
Arlington County police Chief Jay Farr, who attended Tuesday's announcement, said many northern Virginia agencies, including his own, have been doing this kind of training for years. He said he believes Herring's program will be a boon particularly for small, rural forces, where money for training is stretched thin.