Leesburg Council Mulls Police Oversight Panel, New Legislation Needed

What role town residents can play in working alongside members of the Leesburg Police Department looks to be a topic that will continue well into 2021.

The Town Council Monday night broached the topic of creating a civilian oversight board for the Police Department. However, it’s a tool that is not yet available to the council, Town Attorney Christopher Spera said.

Spera said the legislation signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam in October that will take effect July 1, 2021 does create authority for certain civilian oversight bodies with direct regulatory authority over law enforcement agencies. But, as the law is currently written, towns are not authorized to create such oversight bodies. Localities in the legislation are defined as either cities or counties and, while town police departments are subject to oversight, only the county Board of Supervisors, not the Town Council, is authorized to create an oversight board for the town’s Police Department. The county would have the same authority to create such a board for the county’s two other town police departments in Purcellville and Middleburg. But, interestingly, the new law does not subject a county sheriff’s office to an oversight board. 

Spera said he was not sure whether those were the outcomes desired by legislators in creating the new law and said he and other city and county attorneys throughout the commonwealth expect there to be some modifications at least considered when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. 

One tool the Town Council does have at its disposal, however, is the ability to create an advisory board or commission to work alongside the police department. This would not have the same powers as an oversight body, which could mandate disciplinary actions on officers, but instead would serve as liaisons between the police department and the community, and report any recommendations back to the council. The Town of Purcellville is working to establish such a panel.

Police Chief Gregory Brown said he supported the creation of an advisory commission or task force, but expressed some hesitation on moving toward an oversight board.

“There’s always room for improvement, but that improvement has to be tailored to the needs of this community,” he said.

Brown said it is difficult to create a statewide standard for law enforcement agencies, all of which are in different stages of recruitment, retention and training, among other things. Each community’s different qualities and needs also need to be considered. Following the meeting, he clarified that he supports minimum state standardization of policing; however, he does not support federal models of standardized law enforcement because each community is different and thus requires different police services. 

“When you have so many different agencies … you are not going to have the same quality agency to agency because there is no national standard. The legislation now is trying to establish a statewide standard,” he said. 

Brown acknowledged that the events of May 25, when George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis, MN police officers brought forward months of unrest over racial injustice and police brutality have again created an “impetus for very difficult discussions,” but he resisted the urge to standardize law enforcement.

“There are problems in policing,” he acknowledged. “What came out of that event [on May 25] is other jurisdictions trying to usher in policy and legislation which may not be applicable to their particular police department. But I get why they’re doing that.”

Vice Mayor Marty Martinez said the council should consider some kind of police oversight board going forward.

“I think a lot of times our public safety people have a tendency to be ambivalent about the real concerns of our community. The other one is denial because it’s hard to take criticism, so we have a tendency to deny the need for civilian oversight. It’s not that they don’t care; they just don’t see anything coming out of it. The bottom line is a lot of people don’t trust the police. I think that we can maybe take a step into getting the community more involved, knowing that there are a group of people who are listening,” he said.

Martinez also said that, while he is not in favor of “defunding” the police as some called for nationally over the summer, he was interested in seeing if some resources could be reallocated to address mental health issues. 

In later comments during the work session, Martinez said he was proud of the town Police Department and believes the officers work hard. He said that either an advisory board or oversight body would help, not hurt, the department and reinforce to the community that both elected leaders and the police department do care about their concerns.

Councilman Ron Campbell also pushed for some form of civilian oversight for the Police Department.

“Civilian oversight paves the road to police accountability,” he said.

He said such an entity would need to be community-driven to be successful, rather than have members appointed by the Town Council. He suggested a number of organizations like Friends of Loudoun Mental Health, the Loudoun NAACP and his own civic group, Citizens for a Better Leesburg, be involved in determining its makeup. He advocated the creation of a committee that could make recommendations to the council on what such an entity would look like, but did not receive enough support from his council colleagues to move that item forward. 

Mayor Kelly Burk acknowledged that the council was “kind of in limbo” on how to move forward, given possibility for changes to be made to the new law in the next General Assembly session. 

“This is going to be an issue that’s going to come to the new council. I know that they’re interested in pursuing and continuing this discussion,” she said. 

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