A July 23 Sheriff’s Office traffic stop on a Black man that resulted in allegations of racial profiling and a formal complaint against the deputies raised questions about how frequently complaints are filed against the Sheriff’s Office and how they are reviewed by the agency.
The traffic stop in question involved five sheriff’s deputies detaining Kaheem Arkim Smith to search his car for drugs after pulling him over for a faulty brake light—a search to which Smith said in a July 24 press conference he did not consent. Smith said the deputies tore his back seat apart and left it that way. He filed a formal complaint against the deputies later that day.
Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Kraig Troxell said that complaint is still being investigated. He said the traffic stop was part of an ongoing criminal investigation and that “any video associated with a criminal case or an internal investigation is not subject to mandatory release.”
Smith’s complaint was one of 33 that have been filed against deputies so far in 2020. Of those, six were investigated or are currently being investigated internally, Troxell said. Senior Deputy County Attorney Milissa Spring said eight cases have been brought to the Loudoun County Attorney’s Office for formal disciplinary actions against Sheriff’s Office employees so far this year.
In 2019, 81 citizen complaints were filed against Loudoun sheriff’s deputies. Of those, nine resulted in disciplinary action.
And that means that adjusted for population, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office attracted more complaints than its neighbors last year.
In 2019, the Fairfax County Police Department and Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office combined saw 180 complaints. In Prince William County, the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office counted 41 complaints last year.
That amounts to one complaint for every 11,472 people in Prince William County, one complaint for every 6,375 people in Fairfax, and one complaint for every 5,105 people in Loudoun. In other words, Loudouners were more than twice as likely as Prince William County residents to file a complaint against law enforcement last year.
In the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, 36 of last year’s 45 complaints resulted in disciplinary action. According to 2nd Lt. Erica Webb of the Fairfax County Police Department’s Public Affairs Bureau, the number of disciplinary actions taken last year against Fairfax police are not yet available.
Meanwhile, in the Prince William County Sheriff’s Office, four of last year’s six complaints resulted in disciplinary action. In the Prince William County Police Department, two of last year’s 35 complaints resulted in disciplinary action.
Commenting on the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office’s per-capita complaint ratio from 2019, Sheriff Mike Chapman said it’s difficult to compare complaint numbers with those from other agencies, since each one might have a different standard to determine which types of complaints qualify as legitimate complaints.
In Loudoun, the Sheriff’s Office assumes the workload of both the sheriff’s office and police department, while in Fairfax and Prince William, a sheriff’s office and police department co-exist. While their police departments are in charge of public safety within the community and are run by a hired police chief, their sheriff’s offices oversee operations in the courthouse and county jail and are headed by an elected sheriff.
Chapman said the Loudoun Sheriff’s Office accepts complaints across all different platforms, including over the phone and on Facebook.
“We accept everything,” he said. “That’s how we connect with our community. We want to be open and transparent.”
Chapman said that all complaints filed online go straight to his computer and that most complaints are resolved by phone calls with the complainant. He noted that the Sheriff’s Office receives four times more compliments than complaints, formally submitted through the “Compliment Corner” section of the department’s website.
He said that having four of 81 complaints rise to the level of internal affairs investigation in 2019 is “pretty modest.”
“That kind of tells you that the complaints are pretty minimal,” he said. “Our citizens should be impressed by that.”
And so far this year, the ratio of per-capita complaints received by the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office is lower compared with those received in Fairfax’s Sheriff’s Office and Police Department—at one complaint per every 12,532 residents compared with Fairfax’s one complaint for every 7,040 residents. It remains higher than the Prince William County Sheriff’s Office and Police Department so this year, where the ratio is one complaint per every 22,397 people.
The processes for investigating complaints are also different among the three counties.
In Loudoun, complaints against the Sheriff’s Office are investigated internally “to the fullest extent,” according to the office, before being turned over to the Loudoun County Attorney’s Office and the county’s Human Resources Department for review if disciplinary action is required. The HR department then consults with Sheriff’s Office staff on an “appropriate level of discipline,” Spring said.
In the Fairfax and Prince William County Sheriff’s Offices and Police Departments, complaint investigations and determinations on disciplinary actions remain within the department. In Fairfax, they can also be reviewed by the Police Civilian Review Panel, a forum for transparency and civilian oversight that Loudoun’s sheriff has resisted.
The Fairfax County Police Department is the only agency of the five to publish the numbers of complaints and disciplinary actions publicly, in its annual reports.
The Loudoun County, Fairfax County and the Prince William County Sheriff’s Offices don’t publicly post those numbers. Prince William County Police Department Public Information Officer 1st Sgt. Jonathan Perok said the department is “currently researching ways to make certain information publicly available.”