Loudoun County supervisors have begun to stake their ground in the debate over whether to creates a police department to take over law enforcement duties from the sheriff.
All three of the board’s Republicans have already expressed some measure of opposition, citing the unknown costs of the change and criticizing what they say is a rushed process.
After a phone call with Sheriff Michael L. Chapman, County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) announced supervisors will vote on July 21 whether to hold a voter referendum on setting up a county police department this November. Chapman argued against the idea, taking the political dispute to official Sheriff’s Office channels to write that the Board of Supervisors “seeks to take over and politicize local law enforcement.”
Supervisor Caleb A. Kershner (R-Catoctin), in a brief statement on Facebook, wrote “I strongly oppose this plan.”
“We haven’t seen nearly enough information about the costs, how it will be implemented, and what effects and consequences it may have,” Kershner wrote. He also echoed Chapman’s argument that a police department is less accountable to voters, arguing a police department “takes law enforcement out of the hands of an elected Sheriff and puts it into the hands of an unelected police department, which would not answer directly to the voters of Loudoun County the way that our Sheriff does.”
Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) wrote if the county is to consider starting a police department, “THIS IS NOT THE WAY TO DO SO.”
“If we’re going to consider doing this, it should be done through an extremely thorough process that provides residents and elected officials with the necessary information to make a truly informed decision when eventually asked to do so. NOT hastily by a decision two Tuesday’s from now by 9 uninformed elected individuals who think its a good idea to force residents to make such an important decision merely 4 months from now without first arming them with the necessary information to make a well informed decision.”
And Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) posted a lengthy breakdown of the issues at hand, concluding he would likely not support the motion for a voter referendum in its current form.
“Before we ask citizens to weigh in on such a complex topic, the Board of Supervisors should do its homework and have answers to these questions,” Letourneau wrote. “After discussing this with our staff this week, I’m not convinced a comprehensive analysis can be done in time for the November election this year. I think it is backwards for the Board of Supervisors to ask citizens to vote first, and get the facts later.”
He also wrote that the county should perhaps cast its net wider—examining the merits not only a police department, but a potential change to form of government. Loudoun’s traditional county supervisor model is not the only one available to Virginia counties; in the past, some supervisors have discussed internally whether they should look into other forms of government. Some large and rapidly growing counties in Virginia have switched to other forms of government which may change how the local government functions and which officers are elected.
But that, too, he wrote, is not feasible in the near term.
“There are pros and cons to this form of government, and to the others that are possible,” Letourneau wrote. “We need a good, rational, community discussion about those. It is very difficult to have that in a compressed timeline, especially in a Presidential election year.”
However, some supervisors have already expressed support for the proposal, including Supervisor Michael R. Turner (D-Ashburn) who announced he will make the motion seeking a referendum.
He argued a chief of police hired by the county administrator would need to be qualified to manage law enforcement and a multi-million dollar budget, as opposed to only meeting the requirements to run for office.
“In all other counties within the U.S. National Capitol Region, law enforcement is the responsibility of a hired police chief who administers a police department,” Turner wrote in a press release. “To be hired as a police chief, candidates are required to have extensive law enforcement qualifications and a proven track record of law enforcement and investigative success.”
He wrote Loudoun should join other large counties in the region and state.
“After almost two decades of unprecedented growth and the transformation of Loudoun County from a largely homogeneous rural community into a highly diverse, modern county, now is the time to transition towards a more efficient and accountable community policing model adopted long ago by all the counties within the U.S. National Capitol Region,” Turner wrote. “Such a model provides a far more efficient use of our law enforcement resources, protects our law enforcement officers within an equitable human resources administrative system, and offers greater opportunities for collaborative community law enforcement practices.”
Loudoun is by far the largest county in Virginia without a police department; the next-largest county with a sheriff’s office in charge of law enforcement is Stafford County, with a population of around 150,000 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Loudoun’s rapidly growing population is more than twice that, estimated around 413,000 as of 2019.
Vice Chairman Koran T. Saines (D-Sterling) has also said he will support the proposal, comparing a chief of police to the fire-rescue chief, who is also hired by the county administrator, the county’s senior-most staff member and one of only two positions hired directly by the Board of Supervisors.
“No single politician would have the power to make any change,” Saines wrote. “The notion that this change would result in a ‘power grab’ is belied by the diffused nature of the Board’s 9-member structure and the historical record with the fire department. The fire department has not been politicized and neither would a police department.”
Electing the chief law enforcement officer, he argued, is more political.
“A police department would provide more transparency, accountability, and responsiveness,” Saines wrote. “The police chief would have to provide regular updates to the County administrator, like any head of a county agency, and ultimately this information would flow to the Board of Supervisors.”
Randall has also published a document of arguments for starting a police department and predicting that just laying the legal groundwork for a police department, including passing enabling legislation in the state General Assembly and writing a local ordinance, would take “two years or more.” As proposed, the police department would not start up until 2024, at the end of Chapman’s current term.
Proponents of the plan have been hesitant to attack Chapman’s record amid Loudoun’s low crime rates. Loudoun has one of the lowest crime rates in the Washington, DC region. However, they have warned future sheriffs may not be as qualified for the office.
And Randall pointed out that deputies can be fired without warning or recourse at the beginning of each new term.
“If a deputy’s employment is not renewed, that individual has no human resources or county grievance recourse,” Randall wrote. “In short, they are out of a job with very little or no notice, and no ability for their case to be reviewed.”
Much of Chapman’s previous term was spent defending his legal ability to do just that; the department’s attorneys successfully defended a wrongful termination case, pointing to court precedent that allows the sheriff to fire any deputy for political reasons, after a former detective was fired after supporting a different candidate in the Republican primary. That case ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
The Police Benevolent Association also argued a wave of reassignments after Chapman’s last election amounted to political retaliation. Those included reassigning the president and senior vice president of the PBA’s Loudoun chapter, which declined to endorse Chapman. They were reassigned from investigating thefts, robberies and homicides to night patrol and jail duty.
If supervisors vote to ask for a referendum, that request will go to the Circuit Court to be placed on the ballot at this November’s general election. If that happens, the decision will fall to Loudoun voters.