By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Prince William County Police Chief Charlie T. Deane spent many sleepless nights in a spare bedroom last fall. He would lie awake, churning over the county's crackdown on illegal immigrants, not wishing to disturb his wife.
Occasionally, he would call home from work on a Friday morning and tell Cathy to pack for the weekend. The pressure of enforcing the policy was too great. He needed to leave town, head to the family farm near Charlottesville, catch a bluegrass show.
When Deane joined the force 38 years ago, Prince William was a white farming community that considered itself part of central Virginia. But as Deane rose through the ranks, Prince William rose, too. Swept into Northern Virginia against the will of many old-timers, it has become one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, with a vibrant biotechnology corridor and a diverse, upwardly mobile population. It was here that Barack Obama held his first campaign rally after sealing the Democratic presidential nomination, seeing in Prince William a symbol of Virginia's political progress.
The changes that are unfolding in Prince William, including tensions over immigration, were unimaginable when Deane began his career. Now 62 and eligible for retirement, he is struggling to maintain the simple, honored traditions of police work even as he contemplates an uncertain future.
"Police work is about getting the right person to say the right thing," said Deane, who, after 20 years, is the longest-serving chief in the region. "It's about dealing with people and getting them to trust police."
Trust was foremost on Deane's mind in October when the Board of County Supervisors directed police officers to check the legal status of any criminal suspect, whether arrested or not, if there was reason to think the person was in the country unlawfully. Deane wondered: Would the county's Hispanics, who make up 19 percent of the population, feel threatened? Would the police force be accused of racial profiling?
Although he cautioned supervisors that residency checks would work better if handled by corrections officers at the jail, Deane carried out the crackdown without public criticism of those who crafted it. Even today, he refuses to characterize the plan as good or bad. "I don't debate the policy," Deane said. "I enforce it."
His wife, Cathy, however, saw a side of him that most of the public did not -- the reluctant enforcer who had deep reservations about the way the policy was being presented. "We talk," she said, noting that her husband is "unlike some police officers who hold everything inside. He'd be working through an issue and use me as a sounding board, pitting one side against the other until he reached a happy medium that protected everybody."
Prince William's crackdown on illegal immigrants last fall thrust the county into the national spotlight. But some on the board worried that having officers check the status of all suspects, no matter how minor the offense, could result in lawsuits and long-term damage to the county's reputation. So this past spring, the board amended the policy. The latest version, which went into effect July 1, requires officers to make residency checks after suspects are arrested, leaving the county less vulnerable to allegations of racial profiling, officials believe.
It is a change that makes Deane a little more comfortable, those close to him say.
But it has not silenced his critics.
Greg Letiecq, a local blogger and president of Help Save Manassas, a group that advocated for the original policy, has been calling for Deane's ouster for months. "His poor performance, insubordination and coddling of lawbreakers are all good reasons to demand he be replaced," Letiecq wrote recently on his blog, Black Velvet Bruce Li.
Nancy Lyall, a coordinator of the immigrant advocacy group Mexicans Without Borders, said Deane has been put in an untenable position. "He's being forced to do something I believe he believes is bad public policy," she said. "I don't think that from his public statements, anyone can say he is a person who believes in this policy. But he's the type of person who takes orders."
Having his credibility challenged is a new experience for the chief, friends say.
"This immigration issue has tested him in ways I don't know he has ever been tested," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington think tank. He credits Deane with skillfully navigating opposing viewpoints without compromising his principles. "He's had to balance these competing interests and do it in a low-key and respectful way."
Deane, a man of few words, often speaks in a low mumble, never letting on how much he knows in an effort to get others to reveal themselves. As a result, he has been discounted by those who don't know better.
"Some have described him as a simple, country guy," said Maj. Steve Hudson, Prince William's assistant chief for operations. "I've seen people underestimate his intelligence and the depth of his professionalism."
The country part, they have right. Deane grew up in the mountains of central Virginia, in the town of Standardsville: population 300.
His daddy was Greene County Sheriff Wilbur D. "Hooks" Deane, who had one deputy.
The sheriff's phone rang in the Deane household, and his mother, Janie, often served as the dispatcher. Criminal suspects showed up at the house in the middle of the night, yelling things like: "Joe's in the back of the car. He's been shot."
In his teens, Charlie Deane often accompanied his father to serve court papers, make arrests and occasionally take pictures at crime scenes. One of the first dead bodies he saw was a man he helped his father drag out of a stream.
Deane was always interested in piecing the puzzle together to solve a criminal case. That's why he became a detective. He and his brothers followed their dad into law enforcement. And Deane's two sons followed him into the profession.
"Something's wrong with us all," Deane joked of his family's law enforcement DNA. "We can't learn, can we? My father never encouraged or discouraged me from becoming an officer. But he was proud I did."
Although he always wanted to go back to the mountains as a criminal investigator, Deane joined the Virginia State Police in 1966 and was assigned to Prince William. He saw more highways than homicides.
When the Prince William Police Department was created in 1970, Deane joined. In 15 years, leapfrogging captains and majors, he became deputy police chief, a job Chief George T. Owens created for him.
"I told him I wasn't interested," Deane said. "I was sure others were more qualified."
Owens recommended that the county board name Deane his successor, and it did in 1988.
As chief, Deane has tried to keep pace with the demographic changes in the county. The 500-plus-member force has 36 Hispanic officers. The department has hired a staff linguist and tried to increase the number of Spanish-speaking officers by offering them a stipend of $1,500 a year. Deane also prides himself on maintaining Prince William's record of low crime rates. This year, he reported a drop in the crime rate to the lowest level in five years. Still, Deane will never forget one crime.
On Thanksgiving in 1990, Prince William officer Philip "Mike" Pennington became the first and only county officer killed by gunfire in the department's history. He had been part of a SWAT team that got into a shootout with a man suspected of wounding an Arlington County sheriff's deputy earlier in the day.
"As chief, when you lose an officer, you feel like you failed in some way," Deane said. "That's every chief's nightmare. I equate it to what it must be like to lose a child."
Every year since then, Deane has driven Pennington's mother, Doris, to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund candlelight vigil in Washington. The event draws police officials from across the country and features a roll call by state of every officer who died in the line of duty that year. Mike Pennington's name is engraved in a granite wall honoring slain officers at Judiciary Square, and Deane and Doris Pennington always visit that, too.
"This is sort of a tradition he started," said Pennington, who said she isn't sure that she would make it every year if Deane didn't extend an invitation. "He's a thoughtful chief."
Officers from across the region patted Deane on the back and told him to "keep at it." Others whispered in his ear that they liked the way he was handling illegal immigration enforcement.
"Charlie knew the policies were going to create problems," said Montgomery County Chief J. Thomas Manger. "He knew what the consequences were going to be. Charlie could have said: 'I don't need this crap. I don't agree with this philosophy or position. I'm not doing it.' But he stayed. He managed it."
Deane won't say how much longer he will remain chief. It is certainly not the job he walked into 20 years ago when Prince William was a sleepier place, with less consternation. He never wanted his standing to depend on political popularity, but he is learning to live with the times.
"I've successfully not satisfied elements on both sides," Deane said of the immigration squabbles. "Maybe that's the right place to be."