Through their efforts, Henrico Police hope to help their department more closely reflect the community it serves.
GayRVA Staff | January 24, 2018
Community relations are always a bit of a tightrope for police departments. On one hand, officers are assigned to protect and serve all of the citizens who live within their communities. On the other hand, they must patrol these same areas for crimes and suspicious activity. This can create conflict when the police attempt to work with groups who, fairly or unfairly, have formed a negative impression of police officers and their willingness to help. The barrier between the police and those they’re sworn to protect is particularly difficult to navigate where LGBTQ people — especially those of color and transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people — are concerned.
However, local police departments are attempting to change this dynamic, and the Henrico Police Department is heavily involved in this initiative. Their efforts began with the establishment of an official LGBTQ Liaison for Henrico PD, a position currently held by Captain Linda Toney. This position was established by Henrico in collaboration with Police Departments from Richmond City and Chesterfield County, which now have their own liaison officers as well.
Lieutenant Matt Pecka, who is Toney’s assistant, is also head of LGBTQ recruitment efforts at Henrico, where he works with Investigator Aliese Alter. As LGBTQ liaisons, Toney and Pecka frequently attend LGBTQ-related events in the area. “We go to the Equality Virginia dinners, PrideFest, PrimeTimers events,” and others, Pecka said. “By going to these events, I have spoken to many people live that live here in the [Henrico] community.”
Through contacts like these, Pecka has formed personal relationships with many LGBTQ people who live in Henrico County. “I’ve spoken to a couple that live over off Glenside, and they want me to stop by,” he said. “Just [to] check in, maintain that level of conversation and being in touch with one another. A lot of people are moving to the suburbs and out to Henrico, so I think it’s important to maintain that partnership.”
The changing demographics within Henrico County and the Richmond area as a whole have been a big influence on the work Pecka and Alter have been doing to diversify Henrico County’s police force. “Henrico and the Richmond area [are] super diverse. You want your police department to mimic the community that you serve,” Alter said. “The more officers that we have that can relate to people in the community, the stronger our partnerships will be in the community.”
Forming these sorts of relationships can be important tools in finding members of the LGBTQ community who want to join the police force. “Aliese and I have spoken to a couple of people who have said, ‘Hey, maybe I want to be a police officer’,” Pecka said. “We come in and have the conversation, talk about the process, what one would have to go through, and break down any type of barrier that someone would fear.”
And as we’ve already mentioned, there are definitely barriers that stand in the way of getting LGBTQ people and other members of minority communities interested in being police officers. “A few applicants I’ve talked to were raised in an environment where maybe police weren’t seen as good, or didn’t have a good reputation,” Alter said. “It’s often not until they get older and get out of their little bubble that they live in [that] they see police in a different light. They want to be a police officer, to be the difference in those communities that they come from.”
This route is surprisingly common for people currently involved in police work; it’s one that brought Alter herself into the fold. “There are a good amount of our police officers that never saw themselves as being a police officer — I never saw myself being a police officer,” she explained. “I came here when I was in my later 20s, and it was a change that I wanted to make. I wanted to be out in the community, to have those positive interactions with people. We see that a lot — people who are like, ‘This is not the path that I saw myself on, but I want to be the difference’.”
Making a difference in the lives of community members is something Pecka and Alter both come back to many times. To them, what really matters about police work is not so much the arrests they make as the assistance they offer to members of the community. “You’re always called to somebody on their worst day,” said Alter. “You’re entering into a situation that is typically traumatizing to them. That’s what drove me to it, was just to be able to help, in whatever situation.”
Their specific efforts to connect with the LGBTQ community in the area have helped Henrico Police Department increase the extent to which the LGBTQ community is represented on the force. But they’ve also helped heal the rift between the LGBTQ community and a force that has long been seen as persecuting the very community they’re trying to reach. “The culture in the Richmond area has really grown as far as the LGBTQ community,” Alter said. “Our department really embraces it.”
Pecka and Alter explained how, as part of the periodic in-service training all officers are required to undergo each year, the department recently conducted a cultural diversity session on what officers should do when encountering a trans person on a traffic stop. “Captain Toney and I were instructors, making sure everyone was trained within the division,” Pecka said. “it was very positive and receptive. There was a lot of positive feedback, and a lot of questions about ‘what if…?’ So we were able to establish that dialogue, and that’s always good, vs. a silent room with no questions.”
“I think that’s huge for the department to do that,” Alter chimed in. “Because otherwise some officers don’t really have any connections to the LGBTQ community, so how are they supposed to know? If we don’t tell them and we’re just silent about it, then we’re not doing anything.”
The fact that Henrico Police have made an effort to speak up in support of the local LGBTQ community has already met with a positive community response. “There was a barrier for a while,” Pecka explained. “[But] there have been a lot of rewarding comments; ‘thanks for being here and acknowledging our presence’.”
“Pride is super positive. People just stopping by saying, ‘Thank you for being here.’ I think that’s so rewarding,” said Alter. “The past two Prides I’ve been to, I’ve had several people say, ‘We’ve always seen Henrico as a conservative agency, and it’s great to see you guys out here supporting us’.”
“It’s a career that, in general for LGBTQ [people], it is conservative,” said Pecka. “[But] our police culture has drastically changed internally in the Metro Richmond area. Over the past several years, it’s more inviting and more welcoming to all.”
Through their efforts, Pecka and Alter hope to bring in more recruits from the LGBTQ community. If you live in Henrico County and the idea of becoming a police officer interests you, you can contact the recruiting officers by calling (804)501-5197, or by going to henricopolice.org/police-employment.
Written by Marilyn Drew Necci and Jo Rozycki. Photos via Facebook.