Jerome Stokes: Community policing advocate

Published 12:10 am Sunday, July 17, 2016

By Amanda Raymond

SALISBURY — Jerome “Jerry” Stokes’ first interest in policing was sparked at a high school career fair. The recruiter talked to him about the different opportunities available in the department and the chance to interact with all sorts of people.

“It’s not an office-type job,” he said.

He went on a couple of ride-alongs with the police during the evening and it just confirmed what the recruiter said.

“(There were) lots of opportunity to see people and see a different side of society,” he said.

Stokes is going to be introduced to a whole new set of people when he starts as the chief of police for the Salisbury Police Department on Monday.

Stokes’ background

Stokes was born in Lynchburg, Va., and has lived in the area for all of his life. Stokes comes to the department after 32 years at the Lynchburg Police Department and chose to come to Salisbury even though he could have gone into retirement.

After the Salisbury City Council meeting where he was introduced to the mayor and council, he said he just wasn’t ready to stop working.

It’s hard to walk away from something a person has been doing for more than three decades. Stokes knew he wanted to get into policing since his experience with the department in high school. He graduated community college with a degree in the administration of justice and graduated from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

He also has a graduate certificate in local government management from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va.

Stokes does have a small tie to Salisbury. He worked at Food Town, which would later become Food Lion, during community college in Virginia.

He has held many different positions while at the Lynchburg Police Department, including a regional violent crime task force detective, K-9 enforcement team supervisor and internal affairs manager.

Stokes is married and has two daughters, ages 24 and 21, and a 12-year-old son. His wife and son will be moving to Salisbury with him.

“My daughters won’t be coming, although one said, ‘I might come down there,’” Stokes said.

Besides spending time with his family, Stokes likes to go running and is training to run the Marine Corps Marathon, his first marathon, in October.

“It’s a bucket list thing,” he said.

He is also working on a master’s degree in public administration.

‘The rock of the department’

Stokes has been described as an intelligent, caring, genuine and strong leader.

Captain Ryan Zuidema, over the criminal investigations division at the Lynchburg Police Department, has known Stokes since the late ’90s. He said he has developed a strong friendship with Stokes over the 20 years he has worked with him.

“Jerry was very much the rock of the department,” he said.

Zuidema said Stokes served as a mentor to him and many others in the department. Stokes was always one to slow down and think things through, which Zuidema said was good for younger officers.

He was able to consult Stokes on anything from sensitive community issues to personnel matters within the department.

“Jerry is a strong leader who has the upmost integrity in all that he does,” he said.

Police Chief Raul Diaz said Stokes made him feel welcome when he started the position in November of last year.

“The guy did everything he could to make me feel welcome in this new police department,” he said.

Anytime Diaz had a question, Stokes knew the answers. He said Stokes had a “wealth of knowledge” about policing and the department.

“He’s definitely going to be someone who’s hard to replace,” he said.

Stokes served as acting interim police chief before Diaz took over the position.

Lynchburg City Manager Bonnie Svrcek said Stokes was “dedicated to the principles of law enforcement.”

Lynchburg Commonwealth’s attorney Mike Doucette has worked with Stokes for the last 32 years. He said Stokes works behind the scenes to make sure everything runs smoothly.

“…Jerry’s always been the sort of guy that makes sure everything is done right,” he said, adding he doesn’t always have to receive the credit for everything he does.

Community policing is key

If there is one thing Stokes is known for, it is community policing.

One of his last positions at Lynchburg’s department was being responsible for the department’s police investigative and administrative functions, where he was able to implement community policing initiatives.

“In both areas I really worked towards that community policing philosophy and really shoring up our positive community interactions,” he said.

He started a few groups, one of which was a community policing advisory group.

The group met once a month and included faith and business leaders, representatives from nonprofit groups and retirees. The citizens could discuss issues and express ideas and the police could talk about how they were executing different policies and if they were performing the way the public expected.

“It was a really good opportunity to talk about issues and for (the community) to voice opinions that sometimes people aren’t necessarily as open to say directly to the police,” he said.

Stokes also mentioned that there was some interest in Salisbury to start a similar group in the community.

Christine Kennedy, chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance, was a part of the advisory group. She said the group was all about “bridging the gap between the community and the police department.”

She said along with being able to voice community issues, the members were able to take the discussions and information back to their communities.

Kennedy said that Stokes was the one who invited people from the community to participate, put different issues on the agenda for them to discuss and brought the information back to the police department.

“(Stokes) was instrumental in moderating this group and bringing parties to the table,” she said.

Zuidema said the advisory group was an important part of Stokes’ legacy. He described it as a check and balance group for the police department and a “sounding board for new ideas.”

While working in patrol, Stokes also developed a faith leaders program with the help of a sergeant. The faith leaders came together in an advisory role and also helped recruit applicants and encourage positive interactions with the community.

“The police … are coming into people’s lives sometimes in the worst moments,” Stokes said, “so it’s trying to find those opportunities where it’s a little more positive. That’s always something that we search for and those faith leaders were helping us with that.”

Building trust

Unfortunately, the interactions are not always positive. In March of this year, two Lynchburg police officers got into a fight with a citizen. According to a statement from the department, the two white officers, J.D. Gifford and L.M. Hughes, responded to a domestic dispute or assault call and a fist fight broke out on the front porch between the officers and the resident Xavier Crute, an African American, when he would not let the officers inside of the house to check on any other residents inside.

A video of the incident went viral.

Stokes said the department investigated the incident and released information and the 911 call to give the public the full context of the situation.

In light of recent events of negative police interactions with the African American community, Stokes said having a diverse police force is one thing that may rebuild trust between citizens and police officers.

“It’s a little more difficult to have a negative perception of somebody when you know them,” he said. “And that works both ways — the officer and the citizen.”

Stokes said that doesn’t necessarily mean that only African American officers should patrol predominately African American neighborhoods, but the neighborhood should know the officer who does patrol their neighborhood.

He said a diverse workforce is also beneficial for the department.

“When you work with people who are different, it makes your mind a little broader,” he said.

Stokes also said implicit bias training is important for officers, which trains them to recognize unconscious attitudes and stereotypes they may hold.

“Everybody has biases and the way to deal with your biases is to acknowledge and understand them,” he said.

Along with that, Stokes said he is a proponent of the Peelian Principles, developed by Sir Robert Peel in the 1800s for modern policing. Stokes said one of the points was “the public are the police and the police are the public.”

“We have to be part of the community that we’re serving. We’re not an occupying force,” he said.

He said being able to do that is the crux of community policing.

Lynchburg Commonwealth’s attorney Mike Doucette said that type of policing has “always been a point of focus” in the city and something that Stokes can bring to Salisbury.

“Jerry understands that we need to change policing from a warrior mentality to a guardian mentality,” he said.

Another important piece is communication between the police and the community because what police think the main problems are may not be what the community thinks it is.

Stokes said he wants the community to know that he is ready to listen. He wants to know what the needs are around the city to start working towards solutions.

“I want to hear what they think we can do for them,” he said.

“I’m blessed to be here,” he later said, “and looking forward to the opportunity and going to hit the ground running.”

Contact reporter Amanda Raymond at 704-797-4222.