Chris Ford accelerated his police cruiser down Gold Cup Drive to catch the SUV doing 30 mph in a 15 mph zone. The corporal was ready for his first traffic stop of the day eleven hours and 37 minutes into his shift.
“Look at him being sneaky,” Ford said, flashing his blue lights on a quiet road in this small town where a busy day could mean animals escaping from a nearby slaughterhouse.
Ford pulled over, approached the SUV, and greeted the man who had broken the speed limit at precisely the wrong time.
“I was doing 15,” said the driver, a Black man living in a predominantly White neighborhood of a predominantly White town. The officer returned to the cruiser with his license and registration.
“Every time I pull over a person of color, they’re hostile to me.” “Like, ‘Here comes another White cop, here we go again.'” Ford, 56, stated “So I just try to be pleasant.”
Ford was well aware that the stop would be scrutinized — and not just by the reporter who was permitted to accompany him on his shift.
Officers in Warrenton are required to hand out a QR code, which is on the back of their business card, after every significant interaction with residents. Citizens can rate officers on their communication, listening skills, and fairness by answering a series of questions. To encourage people to give honest assessments, the responses are anonymous and can be completed at any time after the interaction. The Guardian Score program is intended to give power to those stopped by police in a relationship that has historically felt one-sided — and to provide police departments with a tool to evaluate their force on criteria other than arrests and tickets.
In Washington, two years after Floyd’s death, there has been little progress on police reform.
The nation has struggled with how to incentivize fair and ethical law enforcement, particularly since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. President Biden signed an executive order last week calling for the development of standards for police department accreditation as well as updates to their use-of-force policies, among other things. However, violent crime is on the rise, and many police departments say they are already doing much of what Biden has requested. According to activists, the movement for substantive change has stalled.
Guardian Score supporters say they are hopeful that the new program in this Fauquier County town will strike a balance by encouraging a type of policing that is both just and keeps communities safe. Of course, this is contingent on officers distributing the cards and residents comprehending what they mean.
The program launched its first pilot in November, but questions remain about its impact and whether it could be used in a major city at all. Guardian Score was only active in three places with low crime rates as of May: Warrenton, Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. So far, the number of people who have stopped to fill out the survey is low. According to the chief, the response rate in Warrenton is just above 10%. The chiefs at VCU and Bucknell said it is around 20%.
Warrenton was an easy place to start in many ways. A solidly Republican town of about 10,000 people an hour southwest of Washington is welcoming to police. Local business owners know each officer’s lunch orders — 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 across the country have struggled to retain officers, the Warrenton Police Department has grown in recent years to 29 sworn officers and three civilian employees. According to the chief, more than 140 people applied for one vacancy last year.