For the first time in nearly a year, the Town of Purcellville’s government operations are seemingly back to normal, with last week’s reinstatement of Police Chief Cynthia McAlister as the final element of the re-stabilization.
McAlister’s first day back at the station was Aug. 1—following 11 months of being on paid administrative leave after seven of her own police officers made allegations of her misconduct. Last week, the town published a report by its independent investigators that determined the allegations to be unfounded. Right away, McAlister, 59, said she would focus on getting her department more engaged in the community, making it transparent and responsive for residents, and mending the interdepartmental divide.
“Certainly, the team has been fractured,” she said. “The town as a whole suffered—this was a critical incident for the department to go through and it needs to be handled as such.”
McAlister said she would be working with her officers on teambuilding, which she said would initiate some “difficult conversations.” She also plans to work with town staff to review the recommendations made by retired Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo to enhance the professionalism and effectiveness of the department, which Longo presented in the public report of the investigation that was released last week.
McAlister said her top two priorities are in line with Longo’s Operations and Departmental Infrastructure recommendations—finding a new location for the police station and hiring a deputy chief to provide her with operational and administrative support and an operations commander to supervise patrol officers.
“I hope we, as a town, can find the funding for that,” she said. “The staffing is huge. I need support staff.”
McAlister will also be working to hire two new police officers to attend the December police academy with the hopes they can be on the streets by October 2019. “We are working on finding people that are suitable,” she said.
One of her goals is also to ensure that her officers never have to work alone. The department is understaffed, making that difficult. In addition to not having enough officers on the roster, three officers are on leave and one is still in training.
“We cannot maintain the coverage with the staff we have now,” she said. “Even if I had everyone here … we would still be short-staffed, but at least it would be comfortable.”
Once her department is staffed at an appropriate level, McAlister said she would consider other modifications, like hiring an investigator and adding a K9 unit and wellness program. “Fitness, both physically and emotionally, needs to be addressed in this profession,” she said.
In addition to staffing additions and organizational changes, Longo recommended that the police department break its “cycle of complacency and mediocrity.” He reported that not all officers have adhered to department policies and that discipline hasn’t always been administered consistently.
Longo recommended that the department update its policy manual with a particular focus on the code of conduct, implement a recurring 12-month training program to address high-risk critical tasks and town expectations, update the process of receiving and investigating citizen complaints and perform daily, weekly and monthly audits of critical tasks.
McAlister said that while those tasks can’t get done all at once, she would be setting priorities to carry out Longo’s recommendations. “Implementing incremental changes is important,” she said.
Longo also urged the department to “understand, acknowledge, respect and leverage the institutional and relational leadership roles within the department.”
When asked whether officers had been disrespectful to her or other superiors, McAlister said “if you read the report, you can see that officers felt that things I did were outside of my purview.”
“My goal certainly was not to make anyone ever feel like I was the know-all, be-all,” she said. “My goal was to come to my community’s police department and dump every bit of knowledge I had … and see where we can strengthen the Purcellville Police Department.”
McAlister said she feels that she has the full support of the town staff.
Mayor Kwasi Fraser said that he and the Town Council welcome McAlister back and “look forward to fully supporting her efforts in community policing and delivery of public safety excellence to our citizens.”
Fraser said he planned to meet with McAlister this week.
Before becoming Purcellville’s police chief three years ago, McAlister had a long career with the Fairfax County Police Department. In 1982, she started as a patrol officer for the county, before being promoted to the rank of sergeant. After another promotion to second lieutenant, she became a patrol supervisor. In 2004, she moved to a command rank and became the acting director of the Fairfax County Animal Shelter. When a new director was hired, McAlister became the police chief’s aid.
In 2006, when McAlister was a lieutenant, she was assigned to the Sully Station the day that Fairfax County Police Det. Vicky Armel was killed by a gunman in the station’s parking lot. McAlister was promoted to captain a year later, and in 2009 was promoted to major and became the director of the police academy.
She retired in June 2015 after a 33-year career. Just a few days after her retirement, she became Purcellville’s police chief, taking over for nine-year police chief Darryl Smith.
McAlister led the town’s department for two years before being accused by seven of her officers of violating multiple town and police procedural policies. An investigation led by then interim Town Manager Alex Vanegas initially substantiated those allegations, with his report resulting in a vote of no confidence in the police chief by the Town Council and a decision by Vanegas to fire her. However, she was quickly rehired when allegations surfaced that Vanegas and Georgia Nuckols, the human resources specialist he hired to investigate the claims, had acted improperly. Vanegas was then fired and the Town Council hired outside investigators Longo and a law firm to conduct a new investigation, which ultimately cleared McAlister of any wrongdoing.
McAlister said that bearing the burden of those accusations was difficult to cope with during the past year. “Community policing has been the core of my soul since I became a police officer,” she said.
When she took the job in Purcellville three years ago, McAlister knew she wanted to remain in the role for five to seven years. Following almost a year of controversy, she said those expectations haven’t changed.
During her 11 months of leave, McAlister said she thought a lot about her options. When considering the perspective of the many young adults she knows through her 18-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son, McAlister realized that she had to return to work once exonerated. “How do I let them watch me walk away when I didn’t do anything wrong?” she said.
Everything came together even more after a few words of wisdom from her friend and former U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers, who fought from 2003-2011 to get her job back after being fired for telling The Washington Post that her department was short-staffed. Chambers told McAlister that she needed to “get back up on the horse” and see if returning to her post would be the best option. After some thought, McAlister determined that it was.
“My hope and my dream is, I’m going to like the ride,” she said. “I’m excited to be back.”