The Town of Purcellville could become the first Loudoun town to create a citizen-led police advisory group in response to nationwide outcry for racial equality and policing policy changes.

Police Chief Cynthia McAlister and Councilman Nedim Ogelman have proposed the town create a Community Policing Advisory Committee made up of residents appointed by the Town Council to promote the relationship between the community and the Police Department. The group, which Ogelman said during Tuesday’s council meeting was initially proposed by a resident a few weeks ago, would present ideas to the Town Council and help set the Police Department’s strategic goals.

According to a June 23 staff report, “a mechanism to bring the community and police command to the table is needed, but even more than this, a long-standing commitment to the community for open dialogue is needed.”

McAlister said the creation of the committee would be vital to the continued relationship between the town’s police officers and residents.

“I think having purposeful, meaningful discussions with the community is critical,” she said. “I do not want to see the energy of [the town’s June 7 equality march] stop. I want to see it move forward”

McAlister said the formation of such a committee would finalize a proposal she presented four years ago, when she suggested the town create a similar group that would, among other objectives, eliminate the bureaucracy that exists when a resident feels the need to talk with the police chief directly.

McAlister said the group would not be an oversight committee, since she feels the Purcellville Police Department is in no need of direct citizen oversight. She pointed out that her officers have used force only once in the past five years. She clarified that “use of force” can mean a plethora of different actions, such as an officer simply drawing his or her weapon.

“I think I run a very tight ship,” McAlister said, adding that her officers already do well engaging with the community.

McAlister said the committee, if formed, should give its members a chance to talk with her about serious issues, such as the difficulty police departments across the nation are having with recruitment and retention, diversification of the police force and whether it is worth spending taxpayer money on specific upgrades within the department. She said committee members could also have a chance to review the department’s use-of-force policy.

“I would love to have the community’s guidance in where they want their community police department to go,” she said.

In general, McAlister said there are certain aspects of community policing that could use some change in this day and age. 

She said the police academy should be at least a year long and that the 40-hour crisis intervention training officers go through doesn’t make them experts in certain fields, like mental health.

“It just needs to be more robust,” she said of the training.

If the committee works out, council members would look for residents with strong interests in strengthening law enforcement services and community-police relationships, and in addressing law enforcement concerns. Those residents, according to the June 23 staff report, should have the ultimate goal of ensuring the Police Department reaches high professional standards and is provided the equipment and training it needs.

McAlister said the committee would need to be large enough to represent the community’s diversity but small enough to keep discussions moving along. Ogelman said the town’s “most at-risk populations” need to be represented in the group.

The committee could be modeled after similar groups that other towns across the nation have created.

Among those listed in the staff report was the Town of Chapel Hill, NC, which, in 2011, set up a Civilian Review Board with nine residents with three-year terms.

The Tacoma, WA, City Council in 2005 approved the creation of a Citizen Review Panel consisting of five residents who represent the city’s diverse communities to improve police accountability. The City Council at that time also approved citizen-initiated police officer conduct complain system.

The Oakland, CA, City Council in 2005 created a Community Policing Program to reduce crime, address long-term problems from a block, neighborhood and citywide level.

Under direction from Mayor Kwasi Fraser, Ogelman, whose council term expires Tuesday, will work alongside the resident who originally proposed the committee to develop its structure before presenting the council with that information.

The town already has a Public Safety Committee, although it is largely inactive with many unfilled vacancies.

“I’m anxious and looking forward to see what develops,” McAlister said. “The feel right now is right.”

In November 2017, Fraser proposed a similar panel, following a unanimous Town Council vote of “no confidence” in McAlister prompted by the findings of an investigation into the chief’s conduct that have since been discredited. But Fraser’s proposed Office of Police Accountability never made it off the ground.

The Loudoun NAACP in May also proposed to create a citizen review board for police and sheriff’s deputies. Leesburg Police Chief Greg Brown and Loudoun Sheriff Michael Chapman pushed back a bit on that proposal.

Chapman said that, because he answers directly to the public, residents by default already make up his citizen review board. Brown said he didn’t see a need for such a review board and that it was important to not take a nationwide narrative and apply it to Leesburg, where officers “are doing good work.”

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