A divided Town Council eked out just enough vocal support Monday to move forward with forming a citizen-led task force to study Leesburg Police Department policies and procedures.
The council has several times over the last year discussed options for forming some sort of oversight body for the town police department. However, the General Assembly did not grant municipalities such an authority.
Civilian oversight bodies have grown in popularity and number nationally since George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin put a focus on concerns about racial injustice and police brutality. In some localities, civilian oversight bodies are even charged with reviewing instances of police misconduct and making disciplinary determinations.
A new state law that took effect July 1 creates 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 Board of Supervisors would have the same authority to create such a board for the county’s two other town police departments in Purcellville and Middleburg. Interestingly, the new law does not subject a county sheriff’s office to an oversight board.
Understanding that their legislative hands are tied when it comes to forming a civilian oversight board of their own, a majority of the Town Council indicated support for putting together a task force to study whether an advisory commission for the police department—something the council does have the authority to create—would be beneficial.
Vice Mayor Marty Martinez has been a vocal proponent of creating a task force to study the formation of an advisory commission, which he said would go a long way in helping to educate the community on police policies and procedures. Police Chief Gregory Brown had also voiced support at a previous council meeting for a task force.
“Once you educate, then people become your advocate,” Martinez said.
Councilman Neil Steinberg said it’s better to study such a subject “when you don’t have a critical situation or a serious problem.” He also acknowledged that, while the council expressed satisfaction with the current department and with Brown’s leadership, the department and its personnel could be viewed in a different light by other members of the community, based on their interactions.
“We cannot put ourselves in every citizen’s shoes that interact with our police,” Councilman Zach Cummings echoed.
Mayor Kelly Burk and council members Suzanne Fox and Kari Nacy did not support forming such a task force. Burk said she did not see a problem that needed to be solved.
“I have to ask, what is the problem that we’re trying to solve, and where is the data that indicates there is a problem,” she said. “I’m just trying to figure out why do we need this task force or commission and what are we basing this on. So, my concerns run very deep that we have to be careful that we are not making it sound like we have a department that needs oversight that is having problems.”
In response to council members’ comments about increasing citizen engagement, Fox commended the department on the active community outreach it already performs.
“I would contend that our police department, more than any other department, has done such an amazing job with community outreach,” she said. “There’s been no lack of opportunity for any sort of citizen to opine on anything.”
The council members that did support the formation of such a task force indicated a desire to see the task force include seven town residents appointed by each council member sit on the body. The selected residents should have some sort of familiarity with legal or police procedures, the majority indicated. The task force would likely also include members of town staff and of the police department itself.
At Town Manager Kaj Dentler’s request, the scope of the task force’s charge would exclude any type of input related to human resources matters. The council is expected to vote on a resolution to form the task force at its July 27 meeting.