Chris Harmison, 61, a longtime law enforcement officer and former second-in-command to Sheriff Mike Chapman, has announced that he will seek the Democratic nomination to challenge the two-term incumbent.
Harmison made the announcement Wednesday morning directly outside the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office off Sycolin Road, with about 30 people in attendance including County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk and Forest Hayes, who will seek to replace Supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) in the Catoctin District this fall.
“I am proud to be running as a Democrat in this election, but I think that we all would agree that law enforcement is not a place for partisan politics,” Harmison said. “Law enforcement is about protecting and serving the public.”
Retired from the Fairfax County Police Department, Harmison previously worked for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office before running for sheriff as an independent in 2003. Harmison was later involved in Chapman’s campaign and was one of the first officers Chapman brought in when he was first elected in 2011. Chapman hired him as a lieutenant colonel, one of the office’s senior-most officers reporting directly to Chapman himself.
After the 2015 election, Harmison was among several officers who were not sworn in again, prompting talk of political retaliation by the sheriff and landing Chapman in an ongoing legal battle for wrongful termination.
Former detective Mark McCaffrey sued Chapman alleging his First Amendment rights were violated when he was not re-sworn because he had supported a different candidate in the Republican primary. A federal judge found that sheriffs have the right to fire any deputy for any reason—including political motivations—and dismissed the suit, which was then appealed and is still awaiting an appeals court ruling.
Harmison made sworn statements in McCaffrey’s lawsuit, alleging Chapman told him, “People challenge me. I’m going to crush them. They’ll never work in law enforcement.”
Harmison intentionally did not refer to Chapman by name on Wednesday, saying the Sheriff has a “poor record” working with the Board of Supervisors and his own employees. “He treats his staff and his deputies poorly,” he said.
In his campaign announcement, Harmison focused on what he would like to do as sheriff, saying his top priority is a commitment to community involvement and transparency. He promised a Citizens Advisory Council to advise the sheriff’s office and serve as a forum for interactions with the community.
“It will start with a basic step of posting the Sheriff’s Office General Orders where the public has access to them,” Harmison said. “We have nothing to hide about our operation because they are the public’s documents, not the incumbent’s personal possession.”
Harmison referred to an incident earlier this year, when a Freedom of Information Act request for the General Orders governing Loudoun deputies was met with a requirement from the Sheriff’s Office that the requestor pay $1,970.80 for them. Those General Orders have still not been released. Harmison said he will “personally deliver” a copy to the editor of Loudoun Now, which reported that story.
“I’m not going to charge him $2,000 for documents that belong to the public,” he said. “We’re not afraid to let you see how we operate.”
He also said he plans to staff up the sheriff’s office, filling vacant sworn deputy positions.
“Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that senior staff and sworn personnel, frustrated with the operation of the office and the way personnel are treated, are voting with their feet—retiring, or moving on to other law enforcement offices,” Harmison said. He said in hiring, he would put a focus on diversity,
He promised a “holistic approach” to drug addiction and mental health issues and recidivism, calling the Sheriff’s Office’s Crisis Intervention Team “a good first step.”
“The impact of individuals suffering from mental health issues continues to place a large demand on law enforcement and incarceration services,” Harmison said. “Incarceration, where the underlying causes of the arrestee’s action or behavior is associated with mental health, creates a financial burden to the Sheriff’s Office and taxpayers.”
Instead, he said, he would work with the Commonwealth’s Attorney and Loudoun County residents to divert some inmates into treatment programs. “We need to work and get them clean so they can be productive members of society,” he said.
Listening on, Randall nodded and said “absolutely.”
Harmison also said he is open to discussions of creating a Loudoun County police department.
“This is a complex area involving both operational and financial challenges, but I pledge to work on an open-minded and cooperative basis with the Board of Supervisors should the board wish to study the pros and cons of a county police department,” Harmison said. “It’s time to take a serious and hard look at that.”
He is not the first of Chapman’s 2012 appointments to try to unseat him as sheriff, nor is it the first time Chapman has faced pushback from within his department.
Eric Noble was promoted to major in command of the office’s administrative division in 2012. In 2015, Chapman narrowly beat back a primary challenge from Noble, amid accusations of mismanagement of department resources and a federal investigation into a deputy under Chapman’s command embezzling more than $250,000.
Harmison’s campaign director is Liz Mills, who also formerly worked for Chapman, both in the agency’s director of Media Relations and Communications and as Chapman’s 2011 campaign director.
After the 2015 election, Chapman also instituted a massive reorganization and two rounds of transfers within the department that police advocates said created an atmosphere of fear and retaliation in the office. Chapman’s office refused to release the memos detailing those transfers; obtained by other means, they show that, of the Loudoun County Sheriff Office’s 541 sworn officers at the time, 85 were transferred or promoted. That included reassigning the president and senior vice president of the Police Benevolent Association’s Loudoun chapter from automotive theft and robbery/homicide to nighttime field operations and jail duty, respectively.
Sean McGowan, executive director of the Virginia Police Benevolent Association, which declined to endorse Chapman’s re-election bid, said at the time many of the personnel changes appear to be retaliation against people who did not support him in the election.
Today, Harmison, who has worked in law enforcement since age 21, works for the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, which operates that county’s jail, provides courthouse security and serves the civil law process. A Fairfax native, he lives in Leesburg with his wife Monica and their two children.
Harmison faces Army reserve intelligence officer Captain Justin Hannah in the Democratic primary.
In introducing Harmison at the announcement on Wednesday, Burk noted that “we are very, very lucky [to have Harmison as a candidate for sheriff].”
“I’m delighted to be here to show my support for Chris Harmison,” she said.
Find out more about Harmison’s campaign at harmisonforsheriff.com.