Episode 5: City Councilman Michael Berlucchi

Podcast Transcript Of Virginia Beach Criminal Defense Attorneys Taite Westendorf & Bassel Khalaf Discussing Increasing Public Defenders Salaries And Other Topics With City Councilman Michael Berlucchi

Bassel Khalaf:
Welcome to WK Pod, home of the never ending podstable where we discuss legal issues. Some of our guests are attorneys, some are not. Do not take anything on this podcast as legal advice. If you have questions about a legal issue, get your own attorney. Peace!
All right, WK Pod. We're here with Michael Berlucchi from the Virginia Beach City Council. It's a very special day because he is the first guest we've ever had on our podcast. So we're very excited. Hopefully he's very excited. Are you excited? 

Michael Berlucchi:
I am. Yeah and honored to be the first guest.

Bassel Khalaf:
Sweet. I think my levels are telling me you should scoot up to the mic closer. Yeah, better. Looking good. Alright, so it's me, Taite, Michael Berlucchi here in the room. We're going to talk about a number of issues. The first issue I want to talk about is it's election season for many people, including yourself. So what does that mean? How long is the term for city council members?

Michael Berlucchi:
Well, I was elected last year to complete the unexpired term of a former member of council. That was the greatest honor and responsibility in my lifetime. And it meant that my term was only one year. So I turned right back around and became a candidate this time for a full term, which is four years.

Bassel Khalaf:
Oh, cool. All right. Well, so do you have a team? How do you how do you put a campaign together? How do you get into politics?

Michael Berlucchi:
Well, I'm still learning, but how I got into politics was that I grew up in Virginia Beach, born and raised, and love Virginia Beach, and moved away after college and lived in other communities for a good amount of time, and I moved back as an adult, and just became active in a variety of community and civic organizations, nonprofits I believed in. And what I realized was that the missions of those organizations were inextricably linked to public policy. So the only way to achieve the goals of those efforts was through policymakers who shared that vision. So I became active supporting candidates I believed in the political process. And then when this vacancy occurred that I just mentioned, there was an opening there, and decided to go for it. And to put my name forward for public service. And it's one of the best decisions I ever made.

Bassel Khalaf:
Was there some single moment where you were like, this is what I need to do?  Your father on his deathbed saying run for city council?

Michael Berlucchi:
No, I don't think it was a single moment. I think it was for me a moment when I think preparation met opportunity. And there was this vacancy in the district where I live. And I was active in civic life. And so I thought, this is if I'm ever going to do this, if I'm ever going to take make a decision like this and take this path toward public service. Then now is the moment.

Bassel Khalaf:
Alright, so just breaking down the basics. There's a city council, and they do what? They decide how to allocate resources towards projects and causes. They vote on things. Just what are what are the basics of city council as a whole and your role in that apparatus?

Michael Berlucchi:
That's right. I mean, as we were mentioning, just before we came on the podcast, Taite was describing the the city council as the legislative body for the city. And I think that's a fair characterization, an accurate characterization. There are 11 members of city council. And principally, I think the most important thing we do is formulate the budget and then adopt the budget. And that's a comprehensive, really complicated and just really interactive task, that requires a lot of cooperation, and teamwork, and compromise. And it really identifies what are going to be the priorities for the city for the city of Virginia Beach for this upcoming year. And then for the years into the future. So that's one important thing we do. Another thing we do is land use, that's a really, really important component of what city council is, is really deciding strategic plans moving forward and on an individual basis rezonings, zonings, and conditional use permits.

Bassel Khalaf:
So just, I guess, going maybe away from city council as a whole and then just sort of back to you. Right now you're up for reelection. So November is when people decide is Michael Berlucchi going to be the guy. As far as being the guy, do you represent a geographical segment of Virginia Beach? Or what exactly is your role in the city council? Or are you just one 11th of the vote?

Michael Berlucchi:
One 11th of the vote. We have a unique system in Virginia Beach. We have council that's made up of 10 members of city council and a mayor who is elected at large. There are seven members who represent districts. And so I represent one of those districts, the Rose Hall district. And there are three members who are elected at large, who represent the entire city. But no matter where you live in Virginia Beach, you vote for all members. And that's a really interesting, I think, unique hybrid system. There are pros and cons. And in fact, our system has been debated even recently, whether we should have a true district district system, or some other type of hybrid system. But I think what's good about this, the system we have now is that all members of your city council are accountable to everyone who lives in Virginia Beach. So we all need to understand the issues in Pungo in the agricultural community, as well as what's happening in Burton Station, Bayside, Salem, North End, Chesapeake Beach. No matter where you live in Virginia Beach, all 11 of your council members are really meant to be responsive, informed, and engaged in the issues that matter to you. And I think there's a lot of merit and virtue to that system.

Bassel Khalaf:
And just because I'm a freak, and I like making things uncomfortable. Do you have like one specific opponent for the Rose Hall District?

Michael Berlucchi:
I have two. 

Bassel Khalaf:
All right. Well, we don't want to give them airtime. Alright, so do you have like a team where you get like polling numbers? Or is that not a thing at this level?

Michael Berlucchi:
At city council level, we just we don't operate with polls. The best you can do is just get a vibe of what's happening out there. Get a sense, talk to your neighbors and friends, and also endorsements from community organizations. That's a really important process. And I think a reflection of the strength of the campaign. Last year, our campaign received every endorsement you could possibly get, which was quite an honor. And we're working through the endorsement process this year.

Taite Westendorf: 
Well, and as I recall, you got something like 70% plus.

Michael Berlucchi:
Yeah. 76%.

Taite Westendorf: 
That's phenomenal.

Bassel Khalaf: 
So we don't need to call Putin into this.

Taite Westendorf: 
Well, and what I was saying, before we even went on air is, it seems like, at least to me, like you've been staking out a position as, in an era of ultra polarization, you're a reasonable person that tries to find common ground, common sense solutions to issues.  I guess I'm, I'm setting you up with a giant softball there. But is that how you view yourself? I mean, are you a fireball thrower in the the partisan sense? 

Michael Berlucchi: 
No, not at all. And I appreciate that, it really means a lot that you see it that way, because that's what I try to bring to public service is what I aspire to bring to public service. We live in an era that's as divided as it ever has been in our lifetime. And I think that what's happening at the federal level, even at the state that's so divided, is trickling down into city council chambers, and even into how we relate to each other. And what we always have to remember, I think, is that we're neighbors first, and we all live in Virginia Beach, we all love Virginia Beach. And we have to treat each other in every interaction we have with the dignity and respect that we all deserve, and bring a little civility and kindness to the political system. So I try to do that. We're human. You know, sometimes we fall short. But I think that's an important component of good public policymaking. And at the end of the day, I think it's an expectation Virginia Beach voters have for their public people who serve them on Council and every other role, put your partisan differences aside, or your personal differences aside and work together.

Bassel Khalaf:
I'm still kind of working on the abstract of politics. And you know, what the system is, as far as the city councilmen and your ascension to becoming a city council member? Is there a next step for Michael Berlucchi? Are you just focusing on your community? Are you trying to be Senator Berlucchi?

Michael Berlucchi: 
I'm really still learning a lot about Council and about Virginia Beach. And you know, just what Taite was talking about bridging divides and bringing people together. It's really hard to do that. In a partisan environment, it's really hard to do that at the state and federal level. And when I look around at people who serve our city, there's a lot of really great people who have have had a really positive impact on life in Virginia Beach at the city level. And I think if I can achieve that, I'll be really proud of it.

Bassel Khalaf:
And as city council members, do they have to affiliate with a party?

Michael Berlucchi:
No. Okay, no, in fact, when you vote for city council, you don't see a party affiliation to the name at all, which is, you know, again, that is good and bad, because everyone knows sort of were sort of where you are. Not everyone, but a lot of people know where we are on the spectrum where we all have our own opinions. But at the same time, you really have to deliver a message about how you're going to improve someone's neighborhood, or promote policies that they care about, and that it's more about that and less about whether you have an R or D next to your name.

Taite Westendorf:
Yeah, one thing that COVID has really driven home to me is that local politics have a lot more practical effect on people's lives than politics at the federal level. So when your kids are going back to school, in what fashion they're going back to school, that's all fashioned by local politicians rather than by federal politics, or even state level politics. So it's important that people educate themselves about the candidates at the local level. They get a lot less publicity, there's fewer ads. But yeah, it's incredibly important. Just to bring up one issue that means a lot to us. Obviously, as criminal defense attorneys, criminal justice issues mean a lot to us. Right now, in our country, there's this giant firestorm between Black Lives Matter, at least the way that a lot of maybe outside agitators would like to portray it on social media is it's Black Lives Matter versus Blue Lives Matter, that sort of thing. And one thing that Bassel and I have discussed quite a bit is we just don't understand that. Because as criminal defense attorneys, we know that you need a professional police force, people in the community, you should not have to choose between living in a violent, dangerous community and having racist policing. You should be able to have both, you should be entitled to both live in a safe place, and not be unjustly targeted because of the color of your skin. And so one of the things that I've admired about your positions is, you've been pro police, you've sought out raises for police, at the same time you've marched in Black Lives Matter rallies. So I mean, can you talk to how it's not a binary. You can be on both sides of that.

Michael Berlucchi:
That's right. I don't view it as a binary choice at all. And I'm glad that you don't either. And that's informed by your profession, and your experiences as a professional in the criminal justice system. And so I think some outside forces like media, or politicians, and, and others want us to have to choose between one or the other. But as you pointed out, it's not a binary choice. At the end of the day, everyone wants the same thing. We want to live in safe and equitable communities. And so we're very fortunate in Virginia Beach, as you know, to have one of the highest performing and best trained police forces in the country. And I am, even though we're not exempt from some of the tensions, many of the tensions that we're experiencing nationwide in Virginia Beach, we have fewer incidents of serious cases of discrimination than many other communities face. And we're in a strong position to continue to build upon the were the strengths that we already have to improve community and police relationships, and provide criminal justice reform that's meaningful and lasting.

Bassel Khalaf:
So I own a gun, but I don't want to ever have to use it. And honestly, I would want to...

Taite Westendorf:
You definitely don't want him to use it. We went shooting and he couldn't hit the target.

Bassel Khalaf:
I know that we need police is what I'm saying. I'm actually friends with a number of police officers. I play on a soccer team and it's got police on it. It's got prosecutors on it. And honestly, the prosecutor's office is run by Colin Stolle, who we support. We think he does a great job. I've got no beef with Colin Stolle even though you know, you might be able to pick out one or two prosecutors who you got beef with. Same thing with the police force. By and large, the Virginia Beach Police Department is extremely well trained, they're very good with especially DUIs which is a, I guess, a geographically specific issue because it's a tourist town. And they're always on point with what they do. So it's kind of hard because we have clients who will often say, Well, I you know, I've got an issue with the police and I wish you did too. And you know, we like to keep it real. So we've got to tell them that hey, you know that they do a job. We do a job. And in the end, hopefully justice is the end product. As far as what's going on locally with budgeting issues or citizen concerns with police, what are the major things that you're seeing pop up as issues that need to be resolved.

Michael Berlucchi:
So I think one of the issues that needs to be resolved is the matter of our independent review panel, otherwise known as a Citizens Review Board. And I think that's a discussion that's becoming more polarized than it needs to be. We have an independent review panel. And this is a group of citizens appointed by city council whose job it is to provide some oversight and accountability from a citizen standpoint on the actions taken by our police department. And there are some members of our community calling for a citizen review panel with subpoena power, disciplinary authority, and this discussion is happening in the General Assembly as well. So we need to resolve the path that will take about providing an enhanced accountability, transparency, and policy review for our police department in a way that protects the rights of all people involved. So that's one outstanding matter that really needs to be addressed.

Taite Westendorf: 
And so when you talk about meaningful criminal justice reform, you just were explaining, you know, one piece of the puzzle, but it's a complicated puzzle, no doubt about that. And one thing that Bassel and I had been have been advocating is additional funding for public defender's offices. And so public defenders are probably something that's not on the radar of the the everyday person out there, but sort of just to set the stage for what I'm discussing. Public Defenders represent anybody who can't afford a criminal defense attorney. So that was something that the US Supreme Court in 1963 set out that even if you don't have any money, you have the right to have somebody represent you. That was a famous case called Gideon v. Wainwright. And so cities and states have to fund public defender's offices to represent those people. So in Virginia Beach, and throughout the state, about two thirds of criminal defendants have public defenders. 

Michael Berlucchi:
Can you say that again? Two thirds?

Taite Westendorf: 
Yeah, about two thirds. Yeah. And, and so with Virginia Beach Commonwealth's attorneys, they're the equivalent of what are commonly known as district attorneys or DAs.  In Virginia, we call them Commonwealth attorneys, because we're along with Kentucky and what Massachusetts, we're commonwealths. So these are the the state prosecutors, and the state prosecutors in Virginia Beach, for instance, they get supplemental funding from the city to the tune of I believe, it's about $6 million. And what that means is that largely goes towards supplementing Commonwealth attorney's salaries. And so the result is that, for instance, a starting level public defender is making in the low $50,000s versus low $70,000s for a Commonwealth's attorney. And as you go up the chain of command to supervisory positions, a deputy Commonwealth attorney is making, roughly $135,000 versus low $70s for a public defender. So at that level, you're talking about a 70 to 80% pay discrepancy. And it's concerning to me, because you want to have a level playing field. If you're going to have a functioning criminal justice system. It's an adversarial system. You need competent people on both sides. You need a strong defense, and of course, you need a strong and professional prosecution. No question about that. But what we end up having, because of the pay disparity is you have a lot of public defenders who stay in the office for a year or two because there's no viable career path there. And so you end up having this imbalance in the courtroom. It's not just an imbalance in resources, but you have prosecutors who have 10-15 years of experience going against public defenders who've been there for a year or two. And so what we've been advocating for is for public defender's offices to receive some level of supplemental funding. That was a long wind up to...

Bassel Khalaf: 
What do you think about that?

Taite Westendorf: 
But I know like in the age of COVID it's really really hard because you know, you've got to rob Peter to pay Paul. Where are you going to take that funding from to pay public defenders but in my mind it's an important issue.

Michael Berlucchi:
You brought it to my attention. And you and Bassel brought it to the attention of all members of council and I appreciate that because it's not something that I knew about. And I think you're right.

Bassel Khalaf:
Well, not not to cut you off. But let me let me cut you off real quick and give you props because the way this started, Taite and I had been discussing after the George Floyd, tragedy what can be done tangible to sort of help the system out. So me being the unprofessional, twat of a human being I am, I went and I messaged people on Instagram. Many people, including yourself and other city council members, and that's how we connected.

Michael Berlucchi: 
That's how we connected, and you can get a lot of business done on Instagram.

Bassel Khalaf: 
Apparently, so

Taite Westendorf: 
You pretty much wrote hi, I'm a twat.

Bassel Khalaf:
But you did it. Pretty quickly, you responded and you said this is an issue. And this is an issue I want to address. And I tried to use that to go to the other city council members. I'm not bashing your colleagues or trying to but I did tell them Mike Berlucchi is on board with this. And where are y'all at? Nobody else responded. So I do have to give props. Because you were the guy who stepped up and said that this is actually an issue. And then you wanted the nitty gritty of it. Sorry, I did cut you off. So I want you to finish, you know, but after that, we got to talk about what's the next step as far as making this a thing. But again my man props.

Michael Berlucchi:
I definitely appreciate that. And, but more than that, I appreciate the props, for sure. But more than that, I appreciate both of you bringing it to my attention and to the attention of counsel, because one of the things that we have to think about in this post George Floyd era, or however you want to characterize it is how can we create policy that makes change, and that not that makes us feel better, but it actually creates lasting change that builds equity. And so as a policymaker, as part of this small legislative body that we described at the beginning of the conversation, it's my responsibility, I think, and responsibility of my colleagues, to find those ways, we all have to create that those that change where we are, and with the resources we have, and I'm fortunate to be in a position on council where, you know, I have a variety of different avenues with which we can create that change. And change is lasting and really makes a difference. So I'm searching for policy solutions, just like you. And when you brought that to my attention, it was just immediately obvious to me that when we think about justice in terms of scales, which is really what it's all about, right? If you have a system, where one side is underfunded and under resourced, the scales are out of balance. And so it's, I'm surprised to be honest with you. I'm surprised that even is that way. 

Taite Westendorf: 
Just to explain to anybody who might be listening to this, the funding discrepancy comes entirely at the city level. At the state level, public defenders and prosecutors are funded at least salary wise at almost an identical level. So it's city supplements that make the difference. And so Virginia Beach, as far as Hampton Roads goes, has the most generous city supplement awarded to a Commonwealth attorney's office. And I'm certainly not here to advocate that they don't deserve it. They do a great job, it's important to have a well trained, highly qualified prosecutor's office. And I think we get the cream of the crop in Virginia Beach because of that funding. In fact, Virginia Beach is in a position where they're poaching the best prosecutors from other cities. And that's a good thing. And I'm happy to have that as a citizen of Virginia Beach. But at the same time, if you're going to have a functioning adversarial system, you need to have people that can step up to the plate and fight them. Because that's what an adversarial system is all about.

Michael Berlucchi:
You know, you made a great point. And when you were describing it, that it's not about these attorneys or lawyers are better equipped than better lawyers. It's not at all. It's that they're being poached. If you're a good public defender, there's going to be opportunity for you in the private sector or on the Commonwealth. Yeah. And so if you have great attorneys, and who are coming up in the system, and who are leaving it quickly, and as a result, you're not developing talent in the way that you wouldn't in the Commonwealth attorney's office or in the private...

Taite Westendorf: 
That's exactly right. And I'll tell you, I was a public defender for almost 11 years. It takes awhile to be a competent attorney. It's not the type of job where you read the training manual and two months in, you're good to go. And you know, to be a competent public defender, it takes years of seasoning and trials, to get up to speed and to be that person who can actually be a worthy adversary in the courtroom to the prosecutors. No doubt about that. And without naming names, there have been just within the past couple of years, there have been at least two or three public defenders who were up and comers doing a fantastic job. And the prosecutors' office, and I certainly don't blame them, came to them and said, hey, we can offer you a little bit more money, substantially more money, and a little bit more prestige. Why don't you switch sides? And I don't blame those public defenders for doing that.

Bassel Khalaf:
Yeah, I mean, we're testament to that. Because honestly, I think if the job paid a little more, I might have thought twice about leaving. But honestly, that pay is lousy, it's terrible. As much as you might enjoy the work and think it's meaningful, you're representing indigent clients, there does become a burnout period. And then you start factoring in the fact that you have kids, and you start doing the math on what does this mean? 5-10 years from now, as far as my extra income that I can allocate towards college or something like that, for my children. It takes a saint of a human being to know that you could go to a prosecutor's office or start your own practice, but you still want to serve society by representing indigent clients. And I don't begrudge anybody for stepping away from that to make more money. 

Michael Berlucchi:
Pay loans.

Taite Westendorf: 
Right. Exactly. That's a great point. Again, just to throw that out there to anybody that might be listening, because some people might listen to this and say, you know, boohoo, and sort of characterize it as welfare for lawyers. The average person graduating from law school, just out of basic necessity is carrying six figure debt. I mean, that's what it takes to graduate from law school. If you want to become a lawyer, almost everybody has to assume massive debt. So it's not just that you're making $50,000, you're then paying 5% of that meager salary into the pension fund. And then you're paying $600 a month for your law school loans. And all of a sudden, I always look at it through the prism of can you support a family reasonably on that money? I don't think that you can. I mean, in fact, just to kind of drive the point home, public defenders, if you look at the simple numbers, a lot of them make less than secretaries or paralegals in the prosecutor's office. Not to denigrate the work they're doing because they're good people. And they're doing important work, but they're not carrying those same sort of loan obligations that a an attorney has. And so I do think it's a little bit outrageous that you have a system where a paralegal might be making 10%, 20%, 30% more than an actual attorney.

Bassel Khalaf: 
And I think we're clearly beating the problem to death by saying it's a problem. So we start talking about solutions. And...

Michael Berlucchi:
I don't think you are. Maybe for this audience. True. But I think one of the challenges we face in this public policy question is how to inform the public about why it is a problem. So it's raising awareness, I cut you off this time. 

Bassel Khalaf: 
No, no, no, you, you did to good effect, because that's what I was getting into is, when we spoke, you are a strong advocate of results. And you're talking about what you know, what's the next thing it's raising awareness. A podcast is some form of awareness. There's a limited audience there. We could boost it on Facebook, we can talk this and that. There are a few very well respected attorneys we've spoken with. I know, you know, a couple of judges I've talked to about the issue, and they're in support of it. Is there something specific that you can think of where a council member can say my constituents would want me to fight like hell for this issue?

Michael Berlucchi: 
You mean with as it relates to the public defender issue?

Bassel Khalaf:
As far as getting the budget.

Michael Berlucchi: 
Yeah. I think that's something that we're gonna have to work together on as we approach the season when we start to begin to formulate the budget. And I think that, at that time, you'll see a variety of stakeholders from the community come together to say, this is what we care about. And those are issues we all know about flooding, public education, public safety. And this should be part of that conversation. Yeah. All our great strong advocates, and you'll bring light to this issue, and I think it will have a tremendous effect.

Taite Westendorf: 
Yeah, one other thing I will say is that it's a cost effective issue. Obviously, you know, we don't live in a vacuum. Financial concerns are very legitimate. And I don't know the city budget. I can't even imagine. A multi billion dollar, what is the Virginia Beach city budget? 

Michael Berlucchi:
A little more than 2 billion. 

Taite Westendorf: 
So $2 billion dollars. So out of that $2 billion in order to achieve total pay equity, I think it probably would take in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. In my mind, that seems pretty fair in a $2 billion budget. But at the same time, I'm very cognizant that there's many worthy causes, and many different organizations fighting over that money. Bassel's leaving me. Alright, well, aside from that, we've probably beat a dead horse on the the public defender issue. Mike, did you have any major issues that you wanted to advocate for? I know that you had brought up flooding. I know, inevitably, if you're a Virginia Beach City Councilman, flooding is a huge issue that everybody has to deal with and environmental concerns. What are some of your huge issues that you're advocating for coming into the November election?

Michael Berlucchi:
Well, I'm glad you brought up flooding. That's one of them for sure. I represent the Rose Hall District, which was the one most significantly impacted by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. And continues to be plagued by storm water flooding. But flooding is a problem for all Virginia Beach residents. And at the end of the day, many of us live in fear that our homes will flood. And that's terrible, not only the impact that flooding has on people's lives and their homes, but also the levels of anxiety that people and families live with, in fear that flooding is going to disrupt their lives or destroy their home, or property. And so that's continues to be a major issue. I think one of the issues that's facing us that we really need to focus on his public safety. And that includes discussions about criminal justice reform, and includes discussions about fair compensation for public safety professionals, police Fire and Rescue, and ultimately, that we have a safe community. Some of the violence we've experienced at the oceanfront and in our in our resort is extremely problematic for our tourism economy, which is an important part, not the only part. But it's one a really important part of what's happening in Virginia Beach. And if we develop a reputation as a resort with violence, people will be less likely to come, there'll be less money spent here. And that's going to raise the cost of living for Virginia Beach families, in terms of Public Works, safety infrastructure projects. So safety is a really important issue. And I'm a big advocate for mental health reform.

Taite Westendorf: 
Yeah, and I'm glad that you brought that up, because that intersects a lot with criminal justice reform, too. I would go as far as to say that. I hate to take numbers out of my ass, but probably a quarter to a third of the criminal cases that we dealt with as public defenders, that was an intersection with mental health issues. You have people that homeless, they're schizophrenic, they're bipolar. They're whatever it might be an addiction issue. 

Michael Berlucchi:
Right, exactly. And it's all related. I think the sheriff would tell you that it's as much  as 40% of the inmates that are receiving medication for serious mental illness. So this is a huge problem. It's one that General Assembly has failed to address adequately. And our Human Services Department is doing a great job. But there's more work to be done. You all are in the criminal justice system. So I don't have to tell you, but once a defendant enters that criminal justice system, and they have mental health issues, it's virtually a death sentence, you're going to basically die in the system if your condition goes untreated. And that's not fair. And it's inhumane. And so it's really incumbent upon us as our responsibility to reform that system to improve the access and delivery of mental health services so that a citizen never enters the criminal justice system, and they get the help they need and can live fulfilled lives.

Taite Westendorf: 
That segues into another interesting subject. So one of the most unfortunate slogans I've ever heard is defund the police. And then you hear people say, Well, we don't really mean defund the police, we mean reallocation of funds to mental health services or to domestic assault advocates, or whatever the case may be. But you know, words have meaning. And when you say defund the police, I think people very reasonably have a negative reaction to that. But t's a point well taken that the police, they're not trained to be mental health providers, and many times they're called out to scenes and that's what's demanded. You've got somebody who's schizophrenic or having some sort of a psychiatric reaction. And so, what do we do to help our first responders? What do we do to alleviate the pressure on the criminal justice system for these people that aren't really criminals. They're not people that are out there deliberately committing crimes. They're having mental issues. 

Michael Berlucchi:
Yeah, they're suffering. And one of the things we have to do first outside of the justice system is reduce the stigma associated with getting help and talking about mental health. But having said that, we have a program in Virginia Beach called the mobile co- responder team. And that's above and beyond what we call crisis intervention team, who are police officers trained in mental health response, the mobile co-responder team is a partnership between human services and Virginia Beach Police, where actually you are sending a mental health professional with a police officer. I want to say very clearly, I'm against defunding the police, even through the nuances of it, we shouldn't be defunding the police, we should be investing in public safety. And we should be allocating resources toward mental health services, and the other types of programs that will prevent people from having encounters with the police. That's my view. And so we have to expand the mobile co-responder team, when a mobile co- responder team  responds to a mental health break, like you described, it results in a reduction of arrest over 90%. And that's what we should be aspiring to. And that's not affiliated with defunding the police. That's enhancing the resources that people need to live quality lives in Virginia Beach and other places. We've got a good system. We don't have enough of them, though.

Taite Westendorf: 
Yeah, I can tell you from firsthand experience in the courtroom, that many of these officers, they're just put in an untenable position. They're responding out to a situation where somebody is having a mental health crisis, and they're not trained to respond to that. And so they're attempting to put this person into custody, maybe they get kicked in the chest or whatever. And before you know it, there's the schizophrenic person who's charged with assault and battery on a law enforcement officer or attempted unlawful wounding or whatever.

Michael Berlucchi: 
And now you have a person who suffers from mental health with a record. And that relates to housing security. I mean, these things are all as you know, all correlated, and extremely problematic. But the answer is not defund the police. And, and I think that's a really is an unfortunate description. It's just, it's really terrible.

Bassel Khalaf:
Well, so we're getting towards the end here. And I know you got other things to do. So I'm going to ask you a couple just off the wall questions, if you don't mind. 

Michael Berlucchi:
Not at all. 

Bassel Khalaf: 
Great. Do you know Pharrell?  

Michael Berlucchi:
I don't know him. I had a chance to meet him once.

Bassel Khalaf: 
Can you get him on board with our causes?

Michael Berlucchi:
I will do my best. 

Bassel Khalaf:
Word.

Michael Berlucchi:
I think it is unfortunate that Something in the Water was canceled because of COVID.

Bassel Khalaf:
It seemed like such a positive thing.

Taite Westendorf:
Year one went extraordinarily well. There was all this concern. We're in the courtroom, and we're talking to police officers. And there was a lot of concern over, Oh, this is going to be a disaster. But it went amazingly well.

Michael Berlucchi:
It did go amazingly well. And you saw really positive interactions between law enforcement and community. And this was before George Floyd and all that. And one of the things that I think the festival was really useful in was helping to recruit police officers, and letting members of the African American and other young people know that these careers are available and that they want everyone in those careers. Ultimately, so that the people who serve our city, whether it's public safety or in government, reflect the community they serve, that's the best way toward equity in my mind. And that's one thing we didn't get a chance to talk about. So I think that was one great outcome of Something in the Water. But we have more to do. I'm sorry, long answer to your short question.

Bassel Khalaf:
I'm very disappointed. I wish you could have brought him with you. Next podcast episode bring for Pharrell Williams. Okay, cool. Geez. Beyond that. Is there anything else, any other issue we haven't touched on that you think needs some addressing?

Michael Berlucchi:
I'd be happy to come back anytime. Or if I can help bring any of my colleagues here. I'd love to do that too.

Bassel Khalaf:
Oh, speaking of. That's a good question. So I live in Thoroughgood neighborhood. So who's my guy or gal?

Michael Berlucchi:
Thoroughgood? That's Louis Jones.

Bassel Khalaf:
Louis Jones.

Taite Westendorf: 
But did you not listen to his very detailed explanation for how we elect city council?

Bassel Khalaf: 
Well I did hear that everybody has a stake and say. But what I'm asking is who's my guy? Hey Mr. Jones. 

Michael Berlucchi:
And he's been on Council for a very long time, very experienced, and I think you would really enjoy talking to him.

Bassel Khalaf:
Oh, cool. All right. Well, Mr. Jones, we need to kick it on a public defender issue that Mr. Berlucchi has taken the reins on. I need you to step up. And if you don't, I'd be very upset. Beyond that, though, I guess that's it. So hey, thanks so much for coming out. We're very very appreciative of your all your support. Like I said, you were the guy who responded, who stepped up, who's apparently has infinite energy to take on all number of issues. 

Michael Berlucchi:
And we're gonna work together on this. And it's going to require that. And so I look forward to talking to you as we move toward our budget and hopefully getting this done.
And if anybody wants a Mike Berlucchi sign, essage me your address, and I'll tell them all about it and he'll send you the sign.

Taite Westendorf: 
Mike, my wife, and I were all First Colonial '98 alums. The one thing she requested out of this whole thing was to make sure that we get a yard sign so I'm gonna make sure we walk away with one. Put that thing in the yard.

Bassel Khalaf:
I've got it in my trunk. Alright, good. Anyways, Berlucchi, he is the man. We have a bench press in the front of our office. Yeah, you wouldn't think that we actually do. We're trying to not project the image of toxic masculinity but apparently not doing a good job. 

Taite Westendorf:
But he did throw up 275.

Bassel Khalaf:
And he repped it like 15 times. Crazy. Anyways, don't step to him. He's a cool dude. Mike Berlucchi.

Michael Berlucchi:
Thank you.

Bassel Khalaf:
Thanks so much for being here. We definitely appreciate it. Take it easy, my man.