Chief Ellington talks training and recruiting

Published 9:18 am Thursday, May 13, 2021

When Farmville Police Chief Andy Ellington looks at the video of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin with his knee of the neck of George Floyd he sees something he never wants to see in his officers – arrogance.

Andy Ellington

“There’s something that I think law enforcement now should have zero tolerance for, and that’s arrogance,” he said. “I think the officer that was involved in the George Floyd case, it appeared he was very arrogant, and I think that affected his decision process and ultimately led to the death of George Floyd. I really do. I could just see it in his eyes. It was uncalled for, inexcusable.”

With Chauvin having been found guilty April 20 in the murder of Floyd and stories of police brutality at the forefront of national media coverage, Ellington recently discussed his efforts to make sure the tales of police misconduct and violence seen throughout the country do not happen in Farmville.

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Ellington, who has been with the Farmville Police Department for 32 years and is currently serving in his fifth year as chief, explained Tuesday, May 11, each step Farmville takes to hire and train its officers.

The hiring process is a lengthy one. Prospective employees who send in a full application immediately start a testing process called the Police Officer Selection Test (POST test). Applicants who score well enough are brought in for one of several rounds of interviews. If those interviews are passed, potential officers undergo thorough background checks which take several weeks to complete.

New legislation requires the department to contact any previous employers who must turn over any important information about the applicant such as complaints or internal investigations.

If they make it that far, hopefuls come before Ellington who interviews them himself. The meeting serves as an opportunity to size up candidates and judge their character.

Arrogance is one thing that gets Ellington’s alarm bells ringing more than anything else.

If candidates pass Ellington’s interview, they receive an initial offer. But there’s still more. Officers-to-be go through a drug screening, a physical, a full psychological evaluation and, just recently, a polygraph test.

“It’s a pretty lengthy process, but you know what? It pays off,” he said. “You can’t be too careful.”

After the hiring process, Ellington said, any non-certified police officer has to go through a 26-week police academy where they learn the basics of law enforcement including subjects such as self-defense, patrol, pursuit, the laws of arrest and de-escalation. Officers must undergo training for cultural diversity and bias-based policing every two years and are also required to attend verbal de-escalation training every two years, although Ellington tries to send his officers to this type of training each year.

One key form of training which was just added, Ellington explained, is training on the duty to intervene if an officer witnesses a colleague use excessive force.

“If you see what happened in the Gorge Floyd case where a supervisor had his knee on (Floyd’s) neck, and that ultimately caused his death, then as an officer, it’s your duty to intervene,” he added.

“I don’t care what your rank structure is. You have a duty. If you think it is excessive force, you’ve got to take action. You’ve got to stop it.”

Training for Farmville officers does not just happen annually. The department has a morning and night shift which begin at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Before each shift starts, officers take part in a roll call briefing to exchange information, and each day during those briefings staff participate in a training period. Supervisors use the training to do things like review viral body cam footage, critiquing officers’ techniques and talking about what was done right and what was done wrong.

Ellington said the Farmville Police Department is routinely holding command staff meetings to address what is going on in the national and local news. Officers are often reviewing the latest online training videos and are frequently in discussions about current events surrounding themes of police conflict and emergency situations.

Nationally, there have been calls for all law enforcement officers to be required to wear body cameras. For Ellington’s officers, this is already a must.

All Farmville police are required to be outfitted with body cams, something that started approximately seven years ago after the department received a large grant used to purchase the equipment. Ellington requires officers turn on their cameras as soon as a call for service comes in.

All patrol vehicles also have dash cams which are activated the moment the blue lights come on. Body cameras at the end of shift are put in a docking station which automatically downloads the footage, and footage from the dashcams are automatically downloaded to the department’s server when officers pull back into the station’s parking lot. Officers do not and cannot tamper with the footage.

When asked if national news of police shootings or misconduct impacts his force, Ellington nodded his head.

“Most certainly, it impacts us,” he said. “If it doesn’t, something’s wrong.”

June 1, 2020, Ellington and other law officers from across the area gathered at the Prince Edward Courthouse to publicly denounce Floyd’s death. With dozens of his fellow men and women in uniform by his side, Ellington read aloud a letter acknowledging Floyd’s killing “further fueled the smoldering fires of mistrust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

On Tuesday, Ellington acknowledged public trust in law enforcement has diminished nationwide.

“You’re not going to be liked or loved by everyone,” he said. “There’s going to be some that are going to be against you, I don’t care what you do, and the more that they see this stuff on television and the media, the more of a believer they’re going to become that all cops are corrupt, all cops are bad, including their own.”

However, he also believes the Farmville community remains confident in its officers.

“I think that we have gained a tremendous amount of respect and love from our community with our community policing programs and the outreach programs that we’ve done in the past 10 years. I think it has made a phenomenal difference here in Farmville.”

Ellington said distrust in police is deterring future officers from pursuing a career in law enforcement.

“It’s doing it right now,” he said.

Ellington said the department recently conducted a hiring process which advertised for certified and noncertified officers. The first round of advertising resulted in 11 applications, five-or-six of which showed up for testing. Another round of advertising produced six applications. Only four of those applicants made it to the background check portion of the hiring process, and only two candidates passed that portion of the process.

A year ago, Ellington added, the department was getting more than 30 applications at a time. “Talking to other chiefs throughout the state that I keep in contact with, they’re all seeing the same thing. Applications have been cut in half,” he said.

The department, according to Ellington, currently has 27 officers and two administrative workers. Farmville is currently down five officers. He added the starting salary for an officer is currently around $37,500, more if they have five or more years of experience. He hopes to see these numbers adjusted in the future.

Ellington said he is proud of the department’s efforts to make sure Farmville police represent the diversity of the community. However, he does hope to extend the effort further. He hopes to add more minorities to the force and is particularly hoping to recruit members of the Hispanic community to add fluent Spanish speakers to the department.

In addition to participating in outreach events like National Night Out and hosting community cookouts, approximately eight years ago the police department created the Citizens Police Academy.

Open to the public, the academy sees 20 people go through a nine-week course that teaches them all about the police department. Participants take part in ride-alongs, go to the courts, visit the jails and get a look at every angle of Farmville’s law enforcement.

The program has been immensely successful and has led to the creation of a police advisory board. Graduates of the academy who have gone through a background check meet regularly to provide outside eyes on things like internal investigations and hiring processes at the department. They also assist with community outreach and help to strengthen the relationship between citizens and law enforcement.

“We are working for them, with them, not against them,” he said.