A new administration officially took over at the Plaza Street headquarters of the Leesburg Police Department last week and the new team already appears to be working like a well-oiled machine.
Gregory Brown took the helm of the department Oct. 3 as only the fifth chief in the department’s history. Major Vanessa Grigsby, who had been serving as interim chief since Joseph Price’s retirement earlier this year, was promoted to deputy chief, and she and Brown already report a solid working relationship.
The comfort the two have with each other was clear, moments after beginning a recent sit-down with the chief and deputy chief. Brown and Grigsby had worked cross-jurisdictionally while Brown was employed with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, most recently as its Eastern Loudoun substation commander. When she heard that he would be taking the reins as chief of the department she has worked at for 20 years, Grigsby said she was thrilled. She said she has seen the excitement not only from within her own department, but the greater Leesburg community.
“For me, my perception is there is a lot of excitement for where we’re about to go,” Grigsby said.
Of his first week on the job, Brown said it has been a busy one.
“It’s a good type of busy. With the support of Vanessa and the rest of the staff they’re making it very, very, easy for me,” he said. “I’m very excited. I think I’m going to fit in just fine.”
And his deputy chief certainly seems to agree.
“Chief Brown and I think a lot alike. We have a similar style and we work well together. We take our cue from our staff,” Grigsby said. “We’re both open, approachable and I don’t think either one of us has all the answers.”
While Brown said much is still to be determined about the hierarchy of the new police department administration, and the overall leadership structure, the two view their roles as they relate to each other quite clearly.
“My job is to support him, to be a conduit to get things done,” Grigsby said. “As chief he has a lot of responsibilities, a lot of events to go to. I’m here to support him.”
“We support each other,” Brown added with a smile.
The two say they plan to use the leadership shown by Price to guide the way they hope to run the department after his retirement. For Grigsby, who worked under Price for 16 years, his ability to “look outside the 12 square miles of Leesburg,” and look at trends occurring on a state, regional and federal level, helped to place Leesburg in high regard. Brown got to know Price well through the Northern Virginia Training Academy in Ashburn, where he had served as an instructor and Price chaired the executive committee. And that approachability, that both he and Grigsby pride themselves on, is one thing Price did so well, he said.
“Even though he was a chief he was able to get the students of the class to respond to him. To me that leadership that keeps people at arms’ length is not effective and to me he was not that,” Brown said. “His mentoring over the last two-and-a-half to three years really, really helped me to prepare for this position.”
While he was content to devote his career to working in the sheriff’s office and eventually retire there, Brown said the opening for the Leesburg leadership post was too good to pass up.
“The only agency I would’ve applied for would’ve been Leesburg. I know the people; I’m familiar with the community,” he said. “For me it was a no brainer.”
Brown said he sees a lot of similarities between the Sterling community he most recently served and Leesburg. Traffic and parking challenges certainly, not to mention incidents of thieves entering unlocked vehicles and homes. “You can’t leave a worm on the end of the hook,” Brown said, reinforcing the department’s repeated urgings for residents to lock up.
When asked whether Leesburg has a problem with gangs, Brown said local law enforcement agencies have targeted the issue effectively.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘problem,’ because that would signify it’s deep rooted. I’ve been to those places before; I understand what deep-rooted problems look like. I refer to them as issues,” he said. “The mid-2000s to 2008, we took very aggressive approach to identifying and investigating criminal cases and we were very successful with reducing gang-related crime and activity to a very miniscule amount. We are taking those approaches now. The pieces look a little different, but we still take the same approaches.”
Grigsby said the department remains a close partner with the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, which has helped to share resources related to combating the rise of gangs and gang-related violence.
Acknowledging their place in the history books as the first two black officers to lead the department, Brown said it is not something he focuses on.
“I base why I’m here on my competencies. By the same token there is the perception that people believe this can help move the department to another level and I understand that and I appreciate that.
What we really want to do is fill positions; we want to diversify. We want to diversify with competent, professional officers that want to serve the public,” he said.
The two list recruitment and staffing as a top overall priority for the department, with the aim of filling the 17 vacancies to get the department back to full staffing.
A full roster will help Brown and Grigsby tackle another department goal—bolstering its community outreach efforts.
“We definitely want to look at some [community outreach] programs we can roll out, but in order to do that we have to have proper staffing. One can’t roll out one without the other,” Brown said.
He said he also hopes to build upon the things the town department has already done in community policing, noting that the Leesburg Police Department is often used as a model for other jurisdictions in approaching the subject.
As the national attitude toward law enforcement has greatly shifted in the last few years, so has how officers recruit others. Gone are the days of recruitment videos focusing on the action and adventure of police work, with SWAT teams breaking down doors. Brown notes most of the recruitment videos you will see now focus on officers interacting with community members. The “guardian versus warrior” concept is one ingrained in officers at the Ashburn academy, more so since the Ferguson, MO, shooting in August 2014. During a speech at his swearing-in ceremony, Brown used “peace officers” to describe the work of his department.
“I think that has a lot to do with why we don’t have a high level of incidents in Northern Virginia,” Brown said.
Brown said he encourages his officers to make simple gestures, waving, smiling, or taking a moment to chat with a member of the public, all to help enhance their relationships, and comfort, with community members. It’s a model that has served him and Grigsby well throughout their careers, and one that he hopes to lead the department in an exciting, new direction.
“You’d be shocked how far a smile will go,” Brown said. “I try my best to lead by example. I wave, I shake hands. If a person wants to give me a hug I don’t have a problem with that. You just have to be aware, but my upbringing has allowed me to read people really well. A young officer might not be comfortable with that, but they look at that situation and say, ‘if he can do that I can do that’. A lot of it is just showing them.”