WARRENTON, Va. — Chris Ford stepped on the gas in his police cruiser and rolled down Gold Cup Drive to catch the SUV pushing 30 mph in a 15 mph zone. Eleven hours and 37 minutes into his shift, the corporal was ready for his first traffic stop of the day.
“Look at him being sneaky,” Ford said, his blue lights flashing on a quiet road in this small town where a busy day could mean animals escaped from a local slaughterhouse.
Ford parked, walked toward the SUV and greeted the man who had ignored the speed limit at exactly the wrong time.
“I was doing 15,” said the driver, a Black man in a mostly White neighborhood of a mostly White town.
The officer took his license and registration back to the cruiser.
“Every time I pull over someone of color, they’re standoffish with me. Like, ‘Here’s a White police officer, here we go again.’ ” Ford, 56, said. “So I just try to be nice.”
Ford knew the stop would be scrutinized — and not just by the reporter who was allowed to ride along on his shift.
After every significant encounter with residents, officers in Warrenton are required to hand out a QR code, which is on the back of their business card, asking for feedback on the interaction. Through a series of questions, citizens can use a star-based system to rate officers on their communication, listening skills and fairness. The responses are anonymous and can be completed any time after the interaction to encourage people to give honest assessments. The program, called Guardian Score, is supposed to give power to those stopped by police in a relationship that has historically felt one-sided — and to give police departments a tool to evaluate their force on more than arrests and tickets.
“If we started to measure how officers are treating community members, we realized we could actually infuse this into the overall evaluation process of individual officers,” said Burke Brownfeld, a founder of Guardian Score and a former police officer in Alexandria. “The definition of doing a good job could change. It would also include: How are your listening skills? How fairly are you treating people based on their perception?”
Particularly since the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, the nation has struggled with the question of how to incentivize fair and ethical law enforcement. Last week, President Biden signed an executive order calling for the creation of standards for police department accreditation and updates to their use-of-force policies, among other changes. But violent crime is rising, and many police departments say they are already doing much of what Biden has called for. Activists say the movement for substantive change has stagnated.
Supporters of Guardian Score say they hope the new program in this Fauquier County town can strike a balance — encouraging a type of policing that is both just and keeps communities safe. That depends, of course, on officers handing the cards out, and residents understanding what they mean.
“It’s a way of letting the community know that the police are not here to attack you,” said Ellsworth L.B. Weaver Sr., 82, president of the Fauquier County NAACP branch. “They are there to help you and protect you.”
The program launched its first pilot in November, but there are still questions about its impact and whether it could be used at all in a major city. As of May, Guardian Score was active in just three places with relatively low crime rates: in Warrenton, at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. So far, the number of people stopped who actually fill out the survey is low. In Warrenton, the response rate hovers just above 10 percent, the chief said. At VCU and Bucknell, the chiefs said it is around 20 percent.
In many ways, Warrenton was an easy place to start. An hour southwest of Washington, the solidly Republican town of about 10,000 people is friendly toward police. It is the type of community where local business owners know the lunch orders of each officer — one Italian restaurant even named a salmon dish after Ford — and residents in all neighborhoods wave from their porches as police drive by.
While jurisdictions nationwide have struggled to retain officers, the department in Warrenton has grown over the past few years to 29 sworn officers and three civilian employees. Last year, more than 140 people applied to fill one vacancy, the chief said.
But the small police force is also eager to implement reforms. Chief Michael Kochis, who retired from his position as a lieutenant in the Alexandria Police Department before taking over in Warrenton, has spearheaded a series of new initiatives since Floyd’s killing. For example, he formed a team of community leaders to recommend policy changes at the department. That team, which meets monthly, changed the department’s use-of-force policy to ban chokeholds long before the Virginia General Assembly did the same, the chief said. The group also supported Kochis’s idea to pilot Guardian Score and then extend it for a year. The program in Warrenton, which costs $4,500 for the year, is funded through a grant from the PATH Foundation, a local charity.
“After George Floyd was murdered, we realized engaging the community wasn’t enough,” Kochis said. “We had to involve the community.”
Kochis said that when he first told his officers about Guardian Score last fall, they were not pleased. They worried they would get bad reviews simply for enforcing the law and that the program would negatively affect their performance evaluations. As of Wednesday, the department had received 170 reviews this year. Every single one was positive.
“Sergeant Thomas Kamerer was very professional with me. I did yell at him out of frustration after he took care of the situation and I didn’t mean to do that,” one person wrote. “I appreciate his time and what he does for the community.”
“Officer Radel was nothing but professional,” another wrote. “I look forward to be pulled over by him in the future. Stand up guy.”
“Officers Ford and Stewart responded to my auto accident,” one citizen said. “They proceeded in a professional manner to assess the situation and take appropriate action.”
Over the past six months, a Guardian Score dashboard visible to the chief and reviewed by The Washington Post showed an average department score of 4.94 out of 5 stars.
The police chief at VCU described a similar experience in a community that has dealt with more ire toward law enforcement. In 2020, student organizations staged protests on campus to demand that the university defund and abolish its police department, citing the case of a 24-year-old VCU alum who was killed in 2018 by Richmond police while experiencing a mental health crisis. But by late last week, all but one of the 244 reviews the department received were positive.
The only review to raise concern, VCU Police Chief John Venuti said, was from an individual who seemed confused about why they had been stopped by police. Venuti instructed a supervisor to review the body-camera footage from the incident and then discuss it with the officer. Kochis said he would do the same in the case of a negative review.
Both chiefs said they use aggregate data from the program as part of their evaluations for officers and to celebrate thoughtful community interaction, with the departments sending out emails at least once a month to note officers with especially positive reviews.
“I like the idea of it now,” said Ford earlier that day, taking a sip from the mug of Mountain Dew he keeps in his cruiser. He was skeptical of the program at first, he said, fearing it would negatively affect his evaluation. “I think it helps officers without them knowing it. It’s a mental check.”
At VCU, Venuti requires officers to give their cards every time they stop someone and then record that they handed out the card as part of their incident report. In Warrenton, Kochis put the QR codes on the back of officers’ business cards, which they are required to hand out every time they record an interaction. He said he checks on squads when they have a low number of responses over time. At Bucknell, the chief said police are supposed to give Guardian Score cards after every interaction that is more than a minute long. Each chief said it is important that officers explain at least a little bit about the program to encourage citizens to take the survey.
“When our officers give that card to people, we want them to take additional time and explain what it is,” VCU’s Venuti said. “I want to see us at 40 percent with us really pushing and selling it.”
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said the program could be a powerful tool for police departments across the country to measure the quality of officer engagement with the community.
“At a time when many people are questioning police accountability and how police deal with citizens, police departments are looking for ways to measure how they are doing,” he said. “And this is one of them.”
Back on Gold Cup Drive, Ford decided to give the speeding man nothing more than a warning. It was a zone that required offenders to pay an additional fine of $200 for speeding tickets, and he said the 15 mph breach did not feel worth that cost.
“Just do me a favor, take it easy,” Ford said to the driver.
“Thank you,” the man replied, smiling now.
Ford handed his business card through the window. He said nothing about the feedback program, but the back of his card had “SCORE YOUR POLICE ENCOUNTER” written in bold blue letters with the QR code underneath.
Ford watched as the man placed the card in his cup holder.
“And that, my friend, is why I don’t get complained on in traffic stops,” he said, now back in the cruiser.
He switched off the blue flashing lights and drove back to the police station, where it was time to clock out. More than a week later, he had not received a review from the interaction.