By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: July 16, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.
PRINCE GEORGE – While flags across the Commonwealth have returned to full staff and the national television media have left, the memory of May’s deadly shooting in Virginia Beach remains fresh in the minds of those living in the city and Virginians from the coastal shores to the mountains.
On May 31, DeWayne Craddock, a former employee of the City of Virginia Beach, opened fire inside the city’s municipal building, killing 12 people before he was killed in a gunfire exchange with responding officers, bringing the death toll to 13.
As news of the shooting made its way across television and social media that Friday and into the weekend, the conversations beyond Virginia Beach in neighboring communities and those far removed from Hampton Roads shifted to asking if enough has been done to prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from happening where they live.
In Prince George County, the deadly shooting hit home for County Administrator Percy Ashcraft, who revealed he worked with one of the victims, Christopher Rapp, during his time in Caroline County. According to Ashcraft, Rapp served as the county’s utilities director there. In the days following the shooting, Ashcraft, human resources director Corrie Hunt, and Prince George Police Chief Keith Early held conversations about what they are doing to keep employees and visitors to county buildings safe in the wake of the Virginia Beach shooting.
“It is my perspective that we can no longer ignore the possibility of a tragedy happening, we, almost, now have to expect it,” Ashcraft said candidly. “Having training sessions with the police department and human resources have been some of the things we have been doing over the last two years to anticipate a scenario that could happen. Our people still need work and when you don’t work on that, it can take awhile to really get down where you are supposed to go.”
He continued, “It is another aspect of training that we are going to have to continually remind our staff of.”
As the shooting unfolded in Virginia Beach during the workday in Prince George nearly 90 miles away and reports began to make their way through television reports and on social media, Hunt said it was difficult to hear the news coming from the coast.
“Your eyes were glued to the reports, you’re putting yourself in the minds of the people working there, and you’re thinking of the victims’ families… it was horrible and it hit close to home for us,” she said. “If someone feels like they were wrongfully terminated, they could come in and do something,” which the shooter, Craddock, according to published reports, had been terminated from his position with the City of Virginia Beach prior to the shooting.
Following the shooting, one of the things county staff, particularly those staff members within departments tasked with overseeing safety, reached out to Chief Early with the police department and county fire and EMS director Brad Owens to do walkthroughs of county buildings and workspaces and speak with department directors about evacuation routes and other security concepts.
The sentiments shared by Hunt were echoed by county human resources department technician and county safety officer Chris Kerley.
“The tragedy that occurred in Virginia Beach has hit close to home for the employees of Prince George County,” he said. “Many of our employees go to Virginia Beach several times a year to enjoy the ocean or to see a concert or sporting event. Even closer to home is the fact that like the victims in Virginia Beach, we are municipal employees.”
Much like Ashcraft, Early, and Hunt pondered, so too did Kerley, asking if this tragedy could have been stopped, why did this happen and what can be done to make Prince George County safer, which Kerley said can be directly influenced by the county’s commitment to safety through open discussions, preparation, and regular training.
“The unfortunate fact is that these things are occurring more frequently than they used to,” he said. “Reason vary, but ultimately if someone wants to commit a violent crime, they usually will. In terms of prevention, the most important thing we can do is present ourselves as a hard target. Having a solid emphasis on security and safety is paramount, and cultivating an environment of awareness is the key to success.”
That awareness and remaining vigilant is part of the police department’s training efforts when working with the county and other partners, with Police Chief Early saying education efforts are constantly evolving as threats evolve.
“Our goal is to be prepared, trained and ready,” he said. “We try to focus on prevention and it starts with, if you see something, say something. Then an investigation, time, and resources can be dedicated to track things down,” noting most of the time, they find it may be unfounded or simply misinformation but the message is clear from Early, who stressed the importance of being proactive, no matter how small or innocuous something may seem.
“We have to report something that seems off before you simply accept it,” county administrator Ashcraft said. “If someone says something off the cuff, or someone comes in with something that appears to be a weapon, it needs to be reported,” adding that goes for social media as well, noting there have been times county employees have been reminded of proper conduct online when they have been made aware of posts made by staff on their private profiles or even publicly on a social media platform, like Facebook or Twitter.
Days after the shooting, the county had actually had a session of active shooter training scheduled for county employees to partake in as part of their efforts to continue to keep safety concepts fresh in the minds of the county’s workforce, with this training being rooted in CRASE, known as the Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events.
“In times of chaos and emergency, people fall back on their training,” Chief Early remarked. “Having that training and mindset could be the difference between life and death because time is not on your side in a crisis situation and having this training is an important part of this.”
In many cases, there is a mental health element that is talked about in the wake of a deadly mass shooting and the question if there were any signs missed that someone could’ve reported. That same question is asked locally and, while the county’s health insurance offers resources for mental health treatment, employees are still trained to report something that may seem off or unusual about a fellow employee’s behavior to management, knowing the demands of some municipal work can result in long hours and a loss of work-life balance.
“We do a lot to make sure employees can have a good home life,” Ashcraft remarked. “But, we cannot separate their home from work as one comes right into the other. We have to look at the employee as a whole, identify things where we can make it better for them, be it health, finances, seminars, etc. We know finances can be a major source of stress. Anything we can do that can make them better from a peace of mind perspective is important.”
“If someone was venting and saying some things that seemed odd, I would report it so it can be looked into,” human resources director Hunt detailed. “The employees know they can go to their directors. We know we can go to our county administrator. I think most people feel comfortable doing that, but some are concerned because they may feel like they are infringing on their personal space.”
Safety may be the topic of conversation but, within Prince George County, no matter the topic, the strong and robust communication channels between all of the county’s departments and Prince George’s public safety assets help all parties involved do an effective job serving their community.
“We all spend time together and some projects take two or more of us to accomplish,” Ashcraft explained. “We live by communication. Our focus is to stay in touch with each other and every employee gets that. Everyone is part of this effort because, while it is about safety today, it couldbe about customer service next. I think we have a good group of employees who are committed and dedicated to Prince George and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
“Our number 1 priority, far and above, is safety. We cannot prevent a disaster but we can train for it, take every measure to try and minimize the risk that is out there. That is our goal everyday from at home, to the roads through our partners at VDOT, and beyond. Safety is what makes the difference,” Ashcraft closed.