Police and sheriff’s officers meet with W&L students

Officers spoke with students about relations between students, local residents and law enforcement

Kelly Swanson

Lexington Police Chief Al Thomas said that in the past five years he has had mostly positive interactions with Washington and Lee students. However, he worries that the freshmen class may change that relationship.

“I’m worried about freshman. We are not off to a good start. I’ve got my eye on you guys. Don’t make us go back six years,” Thomas said.

Thomas said he fears the freshman class may return to the level of disrespect that he saw from students when he first became police chief six years ago. He cites this time period as an all-time low for the relationship between students and police and an all time high for student arrests.

“My first year, six years ago, you guys were jerks,” Thomas told the crowd of W&L students Tuesday at a community discussion hosted by Alpha Phi Alpha, titled ‘Understanding the Men in Blue.’ The discussion featured a panel of officers from the Lexington Police Department and the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office.

“Officers would drive up to respond to a noise complaint, and as they were pulling up people would throw wine bottles at the police cars. It was disgraceful,” Thomas said.

This relationship has changed as the Lexington police have begun communicating and interacting more with W&L students, according to Thomas.

“We then started working with you and communicating and now you see us at your freshman orientation, so those [arrest] numbers have gone down,” he said. “For the last five years you all have been very respectful of us and that is music to our ears.

Students then asked the officers why the number of noise complaints for parties have seemingly increased. Liam Gaziano, ’16, asked what W&L students should do to prevent police from coming to parties in the first place.

“The one thing that it [receiving a noise violation] promotes is to have these parties in houses not on the traveller route, and that is what I don’t like,” Gaziano said. “That is dangerous, and I care about that more than a noise complaint here and there.”

Lexington Police Chief Deputy Mark Riley said the number of complaints should go down if students begin communicating with their neighbors.

“I always tell the guys in the houses off campus in the county to go talk to your neighbors,” he said. “Give them your phone numbers. These are the people who are always calling about the noise complaints.”

According to Riley, he only shuts down a party when a complaint is received.

“I drive by Winding Way a lot, and a lot of times I don’t go up there,” he said. “But as soon as someone complains, I have to. I hear the noise from the sheriff’s office, and we don’t stop unless we get a complaint.”

Riley cited that from Nov. 15 to Nov. 24, there were twelve noise violations at off campus houses occupied by W&L students.

The conversation then turned away from the particulars of the Lexington community’s relationship with law enforcement and focused on the issue of police brutality around the nation. Emahunn Raheem Ali Campbell, an English professor at W&L, wondered what is the police’s perception of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

“I think the elephant in the room is Black Lives Matter and what they have tried to do as a movement,” Campbell said.

Campbell explained that he thought police have the wrong view of the movement as a whole.

“There is a frustration from the academics in the movement that when the police hear Black Lives Matter they hear anti-police as opposed to understanding the historical relationship between black people and the police,” he said.

Thomas said that unfortunately that correlation is exactly what most police officers associate with the group.

“I see Black Lives Matter groups and then I see banners saying kill police,” he said. “When you see that it can take one small group and destroy an entire movement because now it’s labeled… I think their message is very good, but it’s tainted.”

Thomas said that he does support the Black Lives Matter movement’s attempt to discuss the tough topic of the relationship between African-Americans and law enforcement.

“With Black Lives Matter the core essence of this group is to do something very similar to what we are doing today,” Thomas said. “We have got to start talking, we need to talk about the uncomfortable topics.”