Courageous Conversations: Former VB chief says police, community need ‘pragmatic conversations’ for progress

Virginia Beach

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Civil unrest on our streets didn’t just descend upon our country recent. It festered over time.

The former chief of police in Virginia Beach will tell you we have an obligation to redress our grievances. But Jim Cervera also says that comes with a civil responsibility, so everyone’s voice can be heard.

Part of that responsibility lies with police officers, whose role is protect and serve — but what happened to George Floyd sparked an outrage that flashed across the nation.

“No way I would have allowed that to happen as a chief of police. I could say that for Virginia Beach, and the other cities in the Hampton Roads area,” Cervera said of the death of Floyd.

Jim Cervera has been a police officer for nearly half a century, the last 11 years spent as chief of Virginia’s largest city before retiring this year.

“For a number of years, if you will, police have been that kind of organization that absorbs all of the social problems across the country. You know we gave up as a country on the mental health system. Well the answer was ‘police need more training.’ And then we have the homeless problem across the country, ‘police need more training.’ We had the opioid crisis, we still have it, and ‘police need more training.’ So police know they’re on the forefront on just about everything.”

And in a culture where police often walk a thin line between hero and villain, Cervera says “human” is a more accurate description.

“We know that we’ve had some incidents at our Oceanfront over the last couple of weeks where we’ve had gunfire. Well, guess who runs to the gunfire? The cops do. And they don’t ask the victims what race they are, what religion they are, what ethnic background they are. what political affiliation, what sexual orientation. They go to the gunfire because its the virtue to be a cop to do that.”

Cervera says Virginia Beach Police really upped outreach to neighborhoods about 15 years ago.

“We’ve gone out to all segments of the community. We’ve had initially the sit-down conversation, and 15 years ago that sit down conversation was difficult. It was not a ‘kumbaya’ conversation. People had to express how they were feeling, and one of the things we did as a police agency was look across the table and said, ‘You have our word that we believe in equal justice for everyone in the community, and we’ll work towards that.”

“It’s very difficult to hate up close, and if I’m speaking to you eyeball to eyeball, and we both have the same end goal in mind, the same goal if you will. That is to create a better world, we’ll work together on it.”

Cervera began his career as a police officer in Montclair, New Jersey in 1976. He says policing has changed since those days, but adds police must continually wrestle with perceptions of racial bias.

“Everyone has biases. What we try to get the officers to do is recognize what that bias might be, and counteract that bias.”

One way to counteract bias is fewer arrests. Cervera says that was a focus during his tenure as chief.

“In the last decade in Virginia Beach, arrests and traffic tickets have dropped about 40 percent, because we went to a fix-it model, rather than a charge model. At the same time, property crime, and violent crime also reduced 40 percent, because we refocused. Do we want violence to decrease, or do we want basically meaningless inconsequential minor arrests? We refocused on the major cases.”

None more major than May 31 of last year, when police killed a man who shot and killed 12 of his co-workers at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.

“After they confronted the individual, and they were not going to let him out of that door. They were not going to let him down that hallway because they knew what would happen if they did that. After he went down, and they were able to get into that room, the first thing they did was provide medical attention to that individual, and he had just shot a cop and 16 other people. Why? Because they believe in the sanctity of human life. We need to get that word out more and more.”

In the wake of the death of several Black Americans such as Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the word now is “defund” — a battle cry of many activists and politicians.

“Rather than an emotional reaction of just defunding police, it should be a pragmatic conversation to say how can all these other city agencies assist the police.”

“We’ve come a long long way from where we were 40 something years ago,” Cervera said.

So where does Cervera see the future going?

“I honestly see a stronger connection. We’re in a highly emotional place right now across the country. We are beginning to have pragmatic conversations,” he said.


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