Year in Review: Use of force, heroin top police issues in 2016

The national debate over when and how police should use force in fighting crime reached area departments in 2016, although they were largely spared the protest and political turmoil that have rocked larger communities elsewhere.

Attorney General Mark Herring launched a series of training sessions around the state aimed at raising awareness among law enforcement officers of various biases that can affect their interactions with the public.

A class at the Rappahannock Regional Criminal Justice Academy in Middletown was the last of five around the state conducted by Herring and others representing the attorney general’s office. Attendees included members of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office, Strasburg Police Department, and agencies from Prince William County, Falls Church and Alexandria.

Strasburg Police Chief Tim Sutherly and other members of the department co-hosted one of his “Coffee with a Cop” programs with local members of the NAACP and other black community representatives. The meeting focused on bettering communications and easing friction between members of racial and ethnic minorities and law enforcement officials.

Police in Strasburg, Woodstock, the Warren County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies continued to work toward fully integrating body cameras into everyday patrols. The cameras worn by officers have been effective in some cases in settling conflicting claims made by law enforcement officials and others at the scene of arrests and emergencies.

Sutherly said cameras and videotaping is a fact of life for police, whether or not they are recording themselves.

“During these times, you pretty much figure you’re being viewed all the time, so we might as well have ours as well,” Sutherly said. More times than not, it protects the officer.”

Drug cases, especially those involving heroin and other opioids, continued to remain at or near the top of law enforcement priorities throughout the year.

The Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force began equipping its members with Naloxone, known more commonly by its Narcan brand name, for their own personal use at crime scenes.

Narcan is effective at countering the effects of opioid overdoses, which have become an increasing worry among law enforcement officials. Several incidents have been reported around the nation of police accidentally ingesting fentanyl through the skin or by inhalation.

Fentanyl is an especially powerful ingredient that some dealers add to the heroin they are selling. A few grains can be enough for a fatal overdose.

“In weeks past, there have been some incidents we’ve been made aware of where agents involved in search warrants and arrests have gone into homes and apartments where there’s been a hazard from people manufacturing drugs,” Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter said in early December.

The number of people who died from heroin and other opioid drug overdoses stood at 27 as of Dec. 29, three fewer than the total from 2015. By late November, the number of non-fatal overdoses for 2016 was more than double the total of 55 recorded for all of 2015.

The 2016 death toll could still increase after Jan. 1. The 2015 figure was revised upward several weeks into this year after some deaths recorded in late 2015 were belatedly declared heroin overdoses.

The heroin epidemic led the Office of National Drug Control Policy to designate Frederick County part of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, one of 18 counties in nine states that will be added to the list of those receiving extra funding to decrease overdoses through a combination of law enforcement and treatment and rehabilitation efforts.

Other crimes commanding the attention of law enforcement agencies in 2016 included a murder in Frederick County, an assault on a school bus involving members of the Strasburg High School boys’ basketball team and two chases that began on Interstate 81 in Shenandoah County.

The murder of 85-year-old Peggy “Peg” Sinclair of 223 Glebe Drive in Frederick County resulted in the arrest in mid-June of Charlene Moss-Hopkins, who had been working about a year as a home caregiver for Sinclair until the victim was reported missing in mid-June.

Moss-Hopkins, 56, has been charged with first-degree murder, willfully defiling a dead body and concealing a dead body. Authorities say Moss-Hopkins led them to a gravel road near U.S. Route 50 just east of Romney where they found Sinclair’s charred, dismembered remains.

Moss-Hopkins is being held without bail in the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center. She is scheduled to appear in Frederick County Circuit Court on Jan. 5.

A report of a sexual assault on a school bus carrying members of the Strasburg boys’ basketball team triggered a months long investigation that led to seven boys being charged with assault or battery by mob. All of the defendants eventually pleaded guilty in Shenandoah County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

The case also led to a courtroom showdown between the school system and Sheriff’s Office, which refused to allow School Board members to see the videotape seized from the school bus. The board members wanted to see the tape as part of their effort to determine what kind of discipline to impose on the students involved in the incident. The Sheriff’s Office cited the need to maintain the integrity of the investigation by withholding the tape from anyone not affiliated with law enforcement or the criminal justice system.

Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wilson IV ordered the Sheriff’s Office to allow the School Board members to view the video in closed session.

A chase on I-81 in mid-April left one member of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office with a minor leg injury and Brandon Deshawn McClaney, of Little Rock, Arkansas, facing a charge of attempted capital murder of a law enforcement officer and a lengthy list of related felonies.

McClaney, whose case is still pending, is accused of fleeing from a traffic stop and heading south on I-81. Capt. Wesley Dellinger of the Sheriff’s Office, who deployed a spike strip on the road to deflate the tires on McClaney’s onrushing car, injured his leg as he moved out of the way to avoid being hit.

Another chase on I-81 in August ended in the arrest of William Walter Grim Jr. on charges in three counties. The charges include several offenses allegedly committed by Grim in the days preceding the chase.

Authorities say Grim’s Dodge Avenger hit an investigator from the Sheriff’s Office in the lower leg at the start of the chase. The investigator was trying to serve the defendant with a warrant on a separate, unrelated matter, court records say.

Law enforcement officials say they fired their guns at one point in an effort to disable Grim’s car during the chase through a heavy rain. Grim was taken into custody after a New Market police officer dropped the defendant with a Taser discharge.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com.