PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Chief Renado Prince stresses change in his city will not happen overnight.
"This is a slow process," he said. "It didn’t happen yesterday. This took years.”
It's something Prince repeated in his office during an exclusive interview with 13NewsNow on Wednesday.
But when it comes to turning around crime in the city, he's also quick to say, the community doesn't have years to get it right.
Prince officially took over chief duties on September 4, and is the third leader of the department in as many years. He joined the force in 2018, as the assistant chief, after more than 20 years of service in North Carolina.
Of his goals in his new role, he wants to change the way the department addresses crime. In the past, detectives targeted known trouble areas, but Prince wants more focus on people causing "chaos" in the community.
"We'll be looking for the people who have been shooting for no reason and focusing our attention on getting them out of that environment and out of our society if we have to go that far," said Prince.
Prince said officers often know who those people are, but it's harder to connect individuals to crimes with evidence.
"It's one thing to know, or think you know something. It's a different thing to prove it," he said. "In courts nowadays, people want video of the person caught red-handed committing that crime. That's not easy to do."
Even when suspects are caught on camera in the act, Price said poor video quality and access to footage often become hurdles.
The City of Portsmouth, like many communities across the country, faces a lot of challenges right now during the pandemic.
Likewise, so does the Portsmouth Police Department.
One of the biggest? It's short on officers.
The department has hired several officers since Prince was sworn in, but they're still down more than 60 policemen.
The police force is leaning on the Portsmouth Sheriff's Office for extra staff and has been forced to consolidate resources, including assigning officers on street crime, traffic, and K-9 units for additional duties like patrol and answering phones.
"They are basically on a power shift," said Prince. "The periods where we have the highest incidence of crime, they’ve been focusing on those.”
For this reason, recruiting is a priority for the new Chief. Prince said he's been in discussions with the City Manager Angel Jones, who was appointed in April, about increasing pay for city employees, including police, which would make the job more attractive to new recruits.
However, Prince recognizes that departments across the nation, including larger cities in Hampton Roads, like Virginia Beach, are also looking to fill staff shortages. He doesn't want to get in a financial bidding war with cities with larger populations and, therefore, more resources.
Prince would not give an exact salary amount he would recommend to attract more police officers, but he believes the city manager and city have good initial plans. He said there is a recruiting bonus, and he wants a well-thought-out plan, instead of a quick, non-sustainable plan for paying officers.
"It’s about taking our time and doing it right," he said.
In the meantime, Portsmouth Police will also partner with federal agencies and community partners to fill the gaps, and he believes the department's reputation for training and opportunities for officers will hopefully attract more people to sign up to serve.
But the low numbers, especially in the pandemic, has caused community engagement to suffer, which Prince says, is something he’s jumping on right away.
"What we are trying to do right now, is we’re trying to reach out to any and everybody who is trying to stop the violence in the city of Portsmouth, and I am bouncing around and listening to people,” he said. “We took a step back during COVID. COVID is still here but we don’t have the option of maintaining the distance because we lost a lot of contacts. So at this point, we have to start all over again.”
He plans to re-enlist officers to go door-to-door in the neighborhood for Community Engagement Walks. Police officers would check on residents and hand out flyers with a list of available resources in the city.
The police department also plans to start "RESET Walks," where officers connect with neighbors that have recently experienced traumas, like a homicide.
Prince said he's also open to working with grassroots groups, along with the violence interrupters already in the communities.
However, those efforts will take the help of the community, and Prince acknowledged there's a lack of trust between people in Portsmouth and the police department.
"We gotta' get past that, and that’s up to us [the police]," he said. "People don’t [trust us] because generally, they don’t understand what we do. They don’t understand why we do the things that we do.”
Prince said that’s a failure on part of the police, wherever they are. He plans to create online and social media programs that can be viewed from home that explain police policies and practices in real-life scenarios.
Portsmouth residents can expect, Prince said, to notice officers engage with them, as fellow people, while out on patrol. He's hoping to change the narrative, especially among young people about the police motives.
“We have to stop people saying, 'there’s the police, they’re here to get you.' No we aren’t," he said. "There’s the police, we’re here to help you. Yes, we are.”
Violent crime in the City of Portsmouth has risen over the course of the pandemic, and one of the issues, Prince said, is the ease at which people get guns, illegally.
He agrees with a suggestion by the Portsmouth Sheriff that would require gun buyers to sign an agreement in the presence of an officer that he or she would use the gun for their own, legal purposes. He said the idea would deter at least some people who buy guns on behalf of others with illegal intentions.
In the meantime, the department is ramping up efforts with the ATF and other agencies to track them.
“I say this to some of you. Hold on to your guns," Prince said turning to the 13NewsNow cameras. "So when I find you, you take 4 or 5 murder charges. Keep them.”
Prince isn’t sold on citizens’ review boards with subpoena power, saying in part, that’s the court's job and there’s already a system in place. He also wants the community to give him a chance to show that he can lead an accountable department.
"I would say before you jump out the window and say we need to be able to check them, see what I do," he said. And if I don’t do my job satisfactorily, I have a boss. And then voice through her and the mayor and the city council and let them decide from that point on."
He also referenced an already established citizens’ group, which he welcomes, that evaluates the department's policies.
13NewsNow also asked the chief what policies he’s currently working to change in the department. He said he’s evaluating the department's vehicle pursuit policy because he has some safety concerns.
Ultimately, Prince said the police can’t do this alone.
He wants to see a change, but he’s calling on the community to step up.
“You will see a big change, a big change when the citizens of Portsmouth say we will no longer tolerate the violence. We will no longer tolerate the random shootings, killings.”