Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel said the best way to reduce crime in the future is to begin repairing problems of poverty, education and systemic bias that plague the United States and have resulted in distrust and tension between police and the people they are supposed to serve.

While fixing those large systemic imbalances are likely beyond the capacity of a small town like Riverside, those are the key to lowering crime, Weitzel said at a special, hour-long conversation on policing at the Riverside Township Hall on Aug. 20, prior to the regular village board meeting.

“You would absolutely see crime go down in every major metropolitan area in the United States of America if we could produce more jobs, address the poverty issue, address proper education, address systemic types of biases that are out there,” Weitzel said. “[That] would drastically make our job easier and reduce crime.”

Moderated by Village President Ben Sells and attended in person by about a dozen people, most of them comprising the core group of young adults who led local protest marches calling for racial justice and an end to police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the question-and-answer session appeared to scratch the surface of the wider national conversation about the future of policing and its funding.

About half of the session touched on more mundane aspects of the police department, such as the process by which officers are hired, their training both before being sworn in and after as well as challenges police face adapting to changing technology and the increased expectation that they also act as social workers and mental health professionals.

“Without question, the biggest non-policing calls for service we are experiencing are two things: well-being checks or mental health issues,” Weitzel said. “Quite frankly, we don’t have enough training. There needs to be more state-mandated training, for sure.  There’s a need for that without a doubt.”

Weitzel said local police departments need social workers, but that departments lack funds to hire such personnel. He said he would like to see departments utilize “health response teams” that could respond to calls for domestic violence or mental health-related calls.

Such teams would have trained professionals, who could respond quickly at all hours, bringing expertise to situations that police officers lack.

“We need a tremendous amount of funding for mental health issues and well-being checks, because that’s the spike we’re seeing,” Weitzel said. “I know of no chief that would turn down a social worker, a mental health worker. They would welcome that.”

One member of the audience, via a written question, asked why, if the need for mental health professionals are so great, were police simply going to wait for state funding?

While the question might have suggested police use existing funding to redirect dollars to that end, Weitzel took the question to imply police leaders weren’t pressing state legislators actively.

He assured the questioner, that police were working hard to find that funding at the state level and suggested state legislators would likely be open to such funding.

The one question that seemed to start getting at the kinds police actions that fuel resentment and can sometime escalate to something like the George Floyd case was one asking how police respond to “suspicious person” calls.

In a predominantly white community like Riverside, the questioner surmised, the likelihood of “suspicious” person being a person of color was high. 

“There is a lack of diversity in Riverside that cannot be ignored,” said the questioner through Sells.

How does the department treat such calls?

Weitzel said police are obligated to respond to all 911 calls and that responding officers do attempt to locate and make contact with someone matching the description of a suspicious person.

Officer will try to engage those people and ask for identification. If the officer observes no wrongdoing and the “suspicious” person declines to speak with police, the officer will take no further action, Weitzel said.

That said, according to Weitzel, “There’s room for improvement.”

He suggested 911 dispatchers might try to obtain more information from callers about the supposed suspicious person and what they are doing. Someone walking down the sidewalk vs. someone walking through backyards makes a difference.

“I can see the day when there’s a more detailed protocol for reporting suspicious activity, noise,” Weitzel said. “I believe there’s a legitimate concern there.”

Weitzel also addressed the Riverside Police Department’s policy regarding use of force, saying that any level of force used by an officer must be documented and that police must use only the force necessary to make an arrest.

“Once they’re in custody,” Weitzel said, “the force stops. We don’t have a lot of those situations.”

Weitzel reiterated that there have been no use-of-force complaints against Riverside police since he has been chief. He was named chief in 2008 and is in his 36th year as a police officer.

He added that he supported developing a standardized use of force policy for the entire nation, initiating a national decertification process to weed out bad cops and the creation of a national police misconduct certification database to make sure those officers can’t move from one department to another.

As far as the future of policing, Weitzel said that change is on the way.

“It’s already changing,” Weitzel said. “I think you’re going to see a new model of policing. … I think it’s going to be a more just police force, a more compassionate police force and a better-trained police force.”