Beach police union: Officers being unfairly scrutinized after viral videos

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In the wake of two viral cellphone videos that show officers using force to make arrests, the local Police Benevolent Association says officers are being unfairly scrutinized because of public pressure.

Further, the union says, such cases are creating a climate in which well-trained police officers might second-guess themselves in dangerous situations. It’s causing morale in the department to plummet, said Mike Imprevento, general counsel and spokesman for the group, which has more than 300 members, according to its website.

“I’m not one to defend every officer every time, but these instances do not warrant the scrutiny they’re being placed under by this department,” Imprevento said Friday. “These good officers do not need to have that hanging over their head. They’re just trying to do their job.”

The first video shows a January traffic stop in which an officer on a 17-year-old boy in the back seat of a car. Chief James Cervera said in a news conference last month that an investigation concluded .

Imprevento said there was clearly a lot of marijuana in the car and the teen seemed to be reaching for something that could have been a weapon. He was displaying classic signs of stalling that raise alarms for police, Imprevento said.

This week, another video surfaced showing officers on Sunday night at the Oceanfront.

Imprevento said the incident began when the man assaulted a bartender and escalated when he rushed an officer with enough force to knock the police radio off his belt.

The man ran and was tackled by police officers, but he would not obey commands to release his hands, Imprevento said. He was not struck in the head, but in ways meant only to release his hands. It’s what officers are trained to do, he said.

The Police Department said the video prompted Cervera to request an internal investigation. Imprevento said it’s rumored that there might also be a criminal investigation, and, if so, the union will hire criminal counsel to represent any officer charged.

“We’ll be fighting this in every way, at every turn,” Imprevento said.

The Police Department has said officers in both videos were placed on administrative duty. In a statement Friday, it stressed that administrative duty is not considered discipline; discipline is imposed only if a thorough investigation finds it is warranted.

The statement also said that law enforcement is under a microscope across the country and that technology has made it easy for bystanders to record police work.

“In order to build trust and legitimacy in our communities, we have to be above reproach in the eyes of our citizens,” it said. “The citizens must and should feel as though the police are doing the ethically and morally right thing, at the right time, and for the right reasons.”

If they feel that way, the statement said, they’ll be more likely to cooperate.

Macie Pridgen, a spokeswoman for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors have not been asked to screen Sunday’s incident for possible criminal charges. In the January video, Pridgen said, prosecutors determined that the use of force did not warrant criminal charges.

The office hasn’t seen an increase in the number of use-of-force cases its attorneys are being asked to screen, Pridgen said, although it does automatically review cases in which officers use deadly force.

The videos have surfaced during an intense time for police across the country – with officer-involved shootings in several cities prompting riots – and for Virginia Beach’s force. Three times this month, officers have been fired upon and returned fire. Suspects were wounded in all three incidents, but none had life-threatening injuries.

The shootouts show that policing is a dangerous job, one that sometimes requires officers to use force for their own safety, Imprevento said.

“The amount of second-guessing that goes on for people who make split-second decisions – it is not appropriate,” he said. “We all hope clearer minds prevail…. The chief should never do anything other than what he thinks is right, and if he succumbs to outside pressure, he does a disservice to his troops.”

Elisabeth Hulette, 757-222-5097, elisabeth.hulette@pilotonline.com

Kathy Hieatt, 757-222-5155, kathy.hieatt@pilotonline.com

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