By year’s end, the Purcellville Police Department could be receiving more resident input than ever before, along with a bit of help budgeting, conducting certain investigations and enforcing the law.
The Town Council on Tuesday night further discussed a proposal to implement a Community Policing Advisory Committee that would provide insights and recommendations to the council and police chief to “better foster community engagement and alignment on issues and opportunities,” according to the proposed mission document. At the head of the initiative is former councilman Nedim Ogelman and 21-year town resident Molly Magoffin, both of whom were present at Tuesday’s meeting to brief council members and gather feedback, including from Police Chief Cynthia McAlister.
Ogelman said the initiative to create the advisory committee arose from the June 7 equality march. He said the “big message” from that rally was to capitalize on the energy there and focus it on preventing future injustice.
According to the proposed mission document, the group would represent the community as advisors to the Town Council and as a strategic oversight body to the Police Department in matters related to police and community relations, planning, law enforcement training, programming and public education. The group would be implemented to “improve public trust of the police, deter police misconduct and increase transparency” and to “promote equal and fair treatment of all citizens by town law enforcement and public safety.”
Ogelman said the committee should engage with the Town Council and Police Department in a way that makes the town’s law enforcement proactive, instead of reactive.
“That is the nature of the strategic oversight I think that we’re talking about here,” he said.
The group would have nine members selected by the Town Council based on principles of inclusivity and diversity and one non-voting council liaison. Active or former Purcellville police officers, or family members of officers would be excluded from membership. The committee would meet at least four times annually and work to perform 15 proposed duties.
Those duties include reviewing investigations into police complaints and referring those back to internal investigators if necessary; assisting with community outreach efforts and the Police Department’s budget process; providing recommendations to the Town Council for redirection of police funding to other community-based programs to support public safety and well-being; and reviewing and recommending policies related to how residents would like to see laws enforced.
Ogelman said Saint Andrew Presbyterian Church Pastor Dave Milam suggested adding another duty description—that the committee, when warranted, should be permitted to review the Police Department’s actions with regard to bias and use of force and make policy recommendations, but not have authority to participate in personnel matters.
Milam on Tuesday said the committee should be held accountable but also retain some level of independence. He mentioned an incident that occurred six years ago that, he said, was not addressed very well—the May 2014 shooting death of 17-year-old Christian Sierra. In that incident, a town police officer responded to a suicide call and ended up shooting and killing Sierra after Sierra approached the officer with a paring knife. No criminal charges were filed against the officer. But in a 2019 civil trial, a jury found that officer unjustified in his actions and ordered him to pay the Sierra family $3.81 million.
Purcellville hasn’t seen another incident like that since then. In fact, the National Council for Home Safety and Security earlier this year named the town as Virginia’s safest community in 2020, with a crime rate of 5.85 per 1,000 residents. FBI Uniform Crime Report statistics also showed that 59 crimes were reported in the town during 2018, which was 61 crimes less than those reported in the town with the next lowest rate that year.
Armed with those figures, McAlister on Tuesday questioned the drive to create the advisory committee, while also acknowledging that the department can always improve.
She said it was unclear what residents think the Purcellville Police Department’s problems are and what the committee would be solving. She also questioned whether the drive to create the committee was based on political and emotional reasons or on evidence-based needs that Ogelman, Magoffin and other involved community members have identified.
“What is it that we feel the problem is?” she asked. “I don’t know if we, the Town of Purcellville, need to be painted with a national agenda.”
Mayor Kwasi Fraser asked Ogelman and Magoffin to return at the July 28 Town Council meeting with an updated mission document addressing those and other concerns.
“Let’s have that dialogue going so we can get a better document,” he said.
Ogelman urged the council to not prolong discussions on the creation of the committee. In response, Fraser said the council July 28 would commit to a date to vote on the panel’s creation.