Attorney General Mark Herring (D) is well known to Loudoun, where he served as a county supervisor then state senator before his election as the Commonwealth’s Attorney General in 2013. Herring is seeking re-election next year and was in Leesburg on Sept 10 for a campaign event when the Tribune caught up with him.
If you’re re-elected, what’s a key policy objective for you?
Certainty as this year goes on we’ll have more announcements about policy initiatives. One I’ve been working on for the last couple of years is police-community relations. When I saw the events that happened in Ferguson, in New York and just up the road in Baltimore, I felt I needed to go out and talk to communities all around the state, minority communities as well as law enforcement, to understand exactly what the state of communication and mutual trust was. While right now it may seem that politics and race issues across the country have us hopelessly divided, I don’t believe that for a moment. I think there’s a lot more that brings us together and that we share. One of the things that came out of all the conversations is that we want law enforcement tokeep communities safe, while at the same time we want to treat everyone equally and fairly. Those two goals are not in conflict with one another. I believe they’re intertwined and we’re going to need them both right if we want a safe and successful community.
What have you done specifically to advance police-community relations?
We’ve started four or five different initiatives. Number one is training for in-service officers. This is being done with the support and encouragement of law enforcement, and is helping to give them the latest and best policing skills on fair and impartial policing. These skills not only will help keep the community safer, but we as communities across Virginia want to make sure our officers have that kind of training and the best skills. We’re also updating the training curricula in the 40 police academies across the state, so the new recruits coming out will also be steeped in 21st century policing skills. I know that when a police department reflects the diversity of the community it serves, and when they’re a part of the fabric of the community, everybody is better off. We have communities that are very diverse but it isn’t reflected by the departments. We need to understand the barriers for recruitment and understand why more young people and minority communities are not choosing law enforcement as a career. So what this initiative is doing is bringing researchers to do polling and focus groups in Danville and Martinsville. These are two cities with diverse populations, about 50 percent African American, yet the police departments do not reflect that even though the police chiefs have been trying to diversify. They know that it’s the right thing to do but they haven’t been successful. So we’re going to help them identify what we need to do to diversify the departments and then develop a model that we can have available around the state for departments that want to use it.
What about working with kids and teens?
One we just rolled out a couple weeks ago is called “Give It, Get It: Trust and Respect between Teens and Law Enforcement.” I think it’s going to be fantastic, and we’ve made it a part of our youth education program, to improve interactions between young people and law enforcement. One of the things I’ve heard from parents, from kids and from law enforcement is that young people don’t understand what’s happening sometimes when there’s a police stop or when there’s a questioning or something like that. The idea is we want to teach young people that we want law enforcement to treat you with respect, but you have to treat them with respect as well and understand what’s going on in the mind of a law enforcement officer when they’re doing their job. Also vice versa helping law enforcement understand what’s going on in the mind of a kid who is being pulled over as he sees the blue lights for the first time. So this is teaching kids and law enforcement how to have more positive interactions. It’s a long-term effort but I feel we’re making tremendous progress in strengthening the sense of mutual trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. We’ve started working on it, we’re continuing working on it and that’s going to be an on-going project that I think in several years we’re going to be able to see a real change.
The heroin and opiate epidemic is one of the biggest issues in Loudoun and across the Commonwealth. What have you learned about how to address it?
I got my start in politics at the local level, so I have a local perspective on things even though I’m privileged to have a statewide job now. One of the first things I did when becoming attorney general, probably because of that background, was to go on a statewide public safety tour. We covered 2,400 miles, we met with 60 different agencies and I wanted to hear directly from local law officials what the biggest public safety challenges were that we were facing. I was really struck when many of them told me that heroin and prescription overdoses were a huge problem and growing. This was Feb. 2014, right after I took office. I came back home after the tour ended, went to a Fraternal Order of Police dinner and a woman came up to me and told me about how she and her husband had lost their daughter, who was in her 20’s, just a month earlier. This is a law enforcement family. They thought they did everything right and now they’re struggling with the loss of their daughter. She looked me right in the eye and said ‘don’t let this happen to another child in Virginia’. I made a commitment right there to do everything I could to try to combat this problem.
What’s the statewide plan to combat heroin addiction?
The data supports what I had been hearing anecdotally in terms of a spike. It started going up around 2011, and it was spiking in 2012 and 2013 and continuing to rise. So I knew we had to look at the problem differently. This should not be approached just like another front on the war on drugs, but rather as a public health crisis. There’s a definitely a law enforcement component. We’ve stepped up prosecution with our partners in law enforcement and Commonwealth’s attorneys and the U.S. attorney’s office. Also going after traffickers and dealers, but also recognizing that we need to expand treatment. So I’m out encouraging more treatment options and funding for more treatment options. A big piece of what we’re working on is education and prevention. A centerpiece on that is our documentary called “Heroin: The Hardest Hit.” It’s available online, and free DVDs are available if community leaders want to show it in their church or in schools. We’re also doing screenings all around the state and have one coming up in Loudoun. This is a cutting edge documentary that walks through the lives of Virginians who have struggled with addiction. It’s a story of parent who unfortunately have lost a son or a daughter and what it was like going through that. It’s also the story of some young people who made it through recovery.
We have to look at addiction differently, and at different ways to treat it. We’re understand there’s a medical component to it. It often has its roots in the medical cabinet, so we have to engage the medical community as well. It requires a multifaceted response with everyone working together, but I’m confident we’re going to turn it around.
What does Loudoun County mean to you?
Right after law school my wife and I were newlyweds and we rented a little farm cottage on Limestone School Road near the outskirts of Leesburg. So there’s nothing like coming back home to be among friends, some of whom have supported me since my first run for county supervisor in 1990. It’s great to have strong support right here in Loudoun.