Chesterfield police officer Justin Richter (left) is following in the footsteps of his father Bruce (center), grandfather Eugene (right) and late great-grandfather Charlie.
When Justin Richter decided to pursue a career in law enforcement, he accepted a position in a neighboring locality to establish himself on his own merits and avoid any appearance that he was trying to get ahead by capitalizing on his last name.
After a decade of service, however, Richter joined the Chesterfield Police Department in 2020. In the process, his family became the first in the department’s history to include four generations of police officers.
“In my interview, I said I feel like I’m coming home,” said Richter, a Chesterfield native whose great-grandfather (Charlie), grandfather (Eugene) and father (Bruce) all previously served as officers in the county.
“Whether good, bad or indifferent, how people viewed our name, I thought if I go somewhere else, I know I will be judged on what I do. There couldn’t be any, ‘He only got this [promotion or recognition] because of his name,’” he added.
“When people asked me why I was leaving, I said repeatedly that I grew up in Chesterfield, I still live in Chesterfield, I know how Chesterfield is and the people have police officers’ backs. Same thing for the county administration, commonwealth’s attorney, the Board of Supervisors … they still like the police.”
With more than 370,000 residents, Chesterfield is a much different place today than it was when the family’s patriarch, Charlie Richter, began his career as a police officer early in the 20th century. The county was mostly agricultural, with only a few thousand residents spread out on sprawling farms and not much crime to speak of.
The police department hadn’t yet adopted the concept of squad cars, so officers were required to use their personal vehicles and the county reimbursed them for mileage. Now 96 years old, Eugene still recalls occasionally accompanying his dad as Charlie patrolled his beat in the Hull Street Road corridor.
“Now there’s no more ‘Bring your child to work’ days,” Justin noted with a laugh.
“They definitely frown on it,” Bruce added.
All kidding aside, Eugene acknowledged the biggest reason he wanted to be a police officer was because of those ride-along experiences and listening to his father talk about his work.
“One day he needed to talk to the chief about something, so he went to his house and took me along. The next time I saw the chief, I was quite a bit older. He said, ‘You know what you ought to do? Don’t be a policeman, be a lawyer.’ I said, ‘I want to put people in jail when they won’t behave themselves. I don’t want to be out here trying to get them out of jail.’”
After a stint in the U.S. Navy, Eugene returned home to Chesterfield and got a job as a railroad worker. But as the youngest and lowest man on the payroll, he was laid off every time his fellow workers went on strike. He changed career paths and briefly tried selling insurance, but wasn’t successful and took a job with the police department in 1948.
“Eventually they put name tags on our uniforms. One time I ran into somebody who saw my last name and said ‘Richter? I know somebody by that name, Charlie Richter.’ I said ‘Yes, I know him too,’” Eugene said with a laugh.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” the man continued. “You’ve got a big pair of shoes to fill.”
Eugene went on to work for the Chesterfield Police Department until 1983, eventually becoming its first deputy chief. As the county experienced its first significant population growth in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the department launched narcotics and other special units and significantly enhanced its forensic capabilities under his and former chief Joe Pittman’s leadership.
Against his father’s wishes, Bruce graduated from Chesterfield’s police academy and joined the department in 1975.
“There were so many people who would see the name Richter and ask ‘Is your daddy Eugene?’ They’d relate experiences they had with him. Same kind of thing,” he said.
It was a lofty standard for a young officer to live up to.
“You don’t want to mess up,” Bruce added. “When I started out, I’d run into people who knew my dad and they’d give you the indication that ‘You’re gonna have to show me you can be as good as he is.’ Are you going to toe the line and do what’s expected of you, or are you going to try to get by on your name?”
Bruce left law enforcement in 1985 and started his own business, but returned to the Chesterfield Police Department in 1996 and stayed until his retirement in 2007.
“You talk about other professions and say ‘I might do this or that,’ but it didn’t feel right. When I got out of college, I was a history major, I worked at a museum for a little bit and even there I was like, ‘No, this still isn’t right,’” he said. “I don’t know if it’s something in your blood. I guess if you feel called to police work, you can never really be happy doing something else.”
Listening to his father talk about the criticism he and other officers received in the mid-1970s, from antiwar protestors who saw police departments as an extension of the U.S. military’s role in Vietnam, Justin “grew up knowing that no matter what you do, some people are going to hate you but the majority of the people don’t.
“It really didn’t deter me” from pursuing a career as a police officer, he said. “I knew it and accepted it.”
But amid nationwide protests and increasingly negative public perception of law enforcement in spring 2020, Justin found himself questioning if it was still the right path for him.
His prayers for guidance were answered in the form of a moving letter from the mother of a victim in a murder-suicide case he had handled.
“I was like, ‘Heard you. Got it,’” Justin said, looking to the sky. “I know what I’m supposed to be doing.”
“Those kinds of things happen sometimes,” Bruce added. “Things are rough, you’re feeling discouraged, then somebody sends a letter or just gives you an attaboy, says you did a good job … that’s all it takes.”