County supervisors are not expected to vote immediately on whether to hold a voter referendum on starting a county police department. But the idea of a referendum, previously floated and then walked back, has ignited debate on what would be the best way to enforce the law in Loudoun.
Instead, the board on Tuesday will consider whether to schedule such a vote for sometime in the next year. If approved, a draft motion would see supervisors vote on whether to call a referendum sometime before May 2021, with any possible referendum on the November 2021 ballot.
County Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) has talked several time about starting a police department in Loudoun, arguing it would allow for increased oversight and transparency of law enforcement, and pointing out that Loudoun is the largest county in Virginia by far without a police department. Sheriff Michael L. Chapman has opposed the idea, along with other ideas aimed at oversight, such as a civilian review board.
The idea first came to the Board of Supervisors in 2008, when County Chairman Scott York, a Republican, proposed a study of the idea. That effort failed to gain traction and was withdrawn without a vote.
After she initially announced she would push for a referendum, Randall published a set of questions and answers about the idea in which she made her case.
She has since said she will not ask for a referendum, although it remains on the board’s agenda.
She did not estimate costs, but argued after start-up costs, the cost of a police department would be similar, since it is likely most Sheriff’s Office law enforcement equipment and officers would simply join a police department.
And in her argument, she wrote the “the elected sheriff, by definition, is a politician first and a law enforcement officer second.” While chiefs of police would go through a hiring process under the county administrator and be expected to have managerial and law enforcement experience, she pointed out, the only qualifications to get on the ballot for sheriff are the legal minimums for running for office.
She also wrote that a police department would have greater protections for law enforcement officers. After each election, the sheriff can choose not to reinstate any deputies he pleases, leaving the deputy without any recourse, as demonstrated in former detective Mark McCaffrey’s unsuccessful wrongful termination suit against the sheriff.
“In short, they are out of a job with very little or no notice, and no ability for their case to be reviewed,” Randall wrote. “Our deputies are hardworking professionals for whom I have the greatest respect. I believe they deserve to have the rights afforded to every other County employee as it relates to losing their positions and their livelihoods.”
Chapman hit back with a 99-page report his office had repaired after talk about a police department renewed around the 2019 local elections. In that report, Chapman claims starting up a police department would cost more than $20 million, with expenses ranging from acquiring new office space to and hiring new administrative staff to redecorating vehicles and issuing new uniforms and business cards.
The $20 million estimate is a one-year figure; while some expenses are start-up costs that would only need to be spent once, other large items are recurring costs. For instance, Chapman’s office estimates the county would get less state funding for a police department than it does for its sheriff’s office.
In Virginia, sheriff’s offices get funding from the Virginia State Compensation Board, which helps fund the costs of constitutional offices. Police departments get assistance through Department of Criminal Justice Services grants.
While there’s no direct comparison, the example of Prince William County, a fellow DC exurb and the closest county in population to Loudoun, seems to support that argument.
Prince William County has both a police department and sheriff’s office. In Fiscal Year 2021, the two offices together have the budgeting equivalent of 1,008.5 full-time positions, or FTEs, with a total budget of $126,349,828. The two departments collect $12,069,581 in state aid.
The Prince William County Police Department also includes that county’s Animal Control Bureau; however, it does not include the Emergency Communications Center. Chapman has resisted integrating his dispatchers with the county’s fire-rescue call system.
In Loudoun, for comparison’s sake, the Sheriff’s Office and Animal Services together have 829.5 FTEs, and the Sheriff’s Office receives $110,513,829 in state funding. Loudoun County Animal Services does not receive state support.
That means among those positions, Prince William is receiving roughly $12,000 per FTE in state money, while Loudoun is getting roughly $17,000 per FTE.
However, Prince William County’s staff is less costly. Its Sheriff and Police Department together spend about $125,000 per FTE, while Loudoun’s Sheriff and Animal Services spend about $133,000 per FTE. Excluding Animal Services, that number is even higher: at $135,000 per FTE in the Sheriff’s Office.
Some of the costs in the Loudoun Sheriff’s Office’s report appear speculative or inflated; for example, the sheriff’s office estimates it would cost about $10,000 to hire a graphic designer for a new Loudoun Police Department logo and designs. While the county could issue a contract for the work, it also employs its own graphic designers.
Chapman has increasingly wielded his department’s resources toward political ends, including using official public safety channels to attack other elected officials. In a release last week, he alleged the Board of Supervisors “seeks to take over and politicize local law enforcement” with the police department idea, calling it “a reckless power grab intended to inject partisan politics into public safety.”
He took up that argument again in the department’s report, which points out the sheriff is directly elected by residents every four years.
“The sheriff is therefore directly connected to the county residents, who are the primary influencers of the sheriff’s office’s policies, practices, and procedures,” The report reads. “In a police department, the police chief is appointed by the Board of Supervisors and remains in that position at the will of the Board of Supervisors, under the management of the county administrator or executive. A police chief is therefore directly connected to the county Board of Supervisors, and subject to its political and policy agendas.”
That is a mischaracterization of the proposal. As proposed, a new police chief would be one step removed from supervisors; the chief would be hired by the county administrator, akin to other heads of Loudoun departments and public safety agencies like the fire-rescue chief.
Chapman has already faced accusations of using the power of his office for political ends. The Police Benevolent Association argued a wave of reassignments after Chapman’s last election amounted to political retaliation, and Chapman successfully defended in court his right to fire deputies for political reasons.
That case ended when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
Either way, Loudouners are likely to get answers on more than that; the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is expected to vote on a more comprehensive study not just of possibly reorganizing law enforcement, but the entire county government. That report is due back by the end of the year.
Loudoun County Republicans have organized a protest to begin 45 minutes before the Board of Supervisors meeting, opposing the idea of a police department, and handing out talking points and recruiting people to speak during the public input part of the meeting.
If Loudoun decides to hand primary law enforcement duties to a police department, it will be the first Virginia county to do so since 1995, when Prince George County officially separated the police department from the Sheriff’s Office.
There are currently only nine county police departments in Virginia, and Loudoun is by far the largest county by population without one. The next-largest county after Loudoun with a sheriff’s office in charge of law enforcement is Stafford County, with a population of around 150,000 according to the US Census Bureau. Loudoun’s rapidly growing population is more than twice that, estimated around 413,000 as of 2019.
Loudoun also has the largest sheriff’s office in the commonwealth.