The Purcellville Town Council could be one meeting away from creating a citizen-led police advisory committee, but town residents speaking at Tuesday night’s public hearing were divided in their views of the proposal.
Eight residents addressed the town’s proposed Community Policing Advisory Committee during the session. Five spoke either in opposition to the group or voiced concerned about its formation, with several claiming the council had politicized the proposal, while another three spoke in support of its formation, citing a need to implement preventative measures to keep the town safe from police malfeasance.
The proposal emerged following the June 7 Black Lives Matter march in town. Shortly after, former councilman Nedim Ogelman and 21-year town resident Molly Magoffin proposed the town create the committee to “enhance communication between the [Town Council], the Police Department and Purcellville’s residents, businesses and visitors, on all issues related to how Purcellville enforces its laws,” according to the July 29 version of the proposed mission document. The committee also would help the Police Department budget its funds.
The committee is proposed to include nine community members all appointed by the Town Council, which “should make selections based on principles of inclusivity and diversity,” according to the July 14 version of the proposed mission document.
Since then, the proposal has gathered a good deal of support and opposition.
During Tuesday’s public hearing, Lana Hunanian, a two-year town resident with two young children who has been practicing criminal defense for more than 22 years in Virginia and Washington, DC, said that she has dealt with many different police forces and that she feels the Purcellville Police Department has no systemic issues.
“I don’t want to tie [officers’] hands in the name of political correctness,” she said. “I want the police to know they are trusted and appreciated.”
Rosemary Wagner said the formation of the committee would be “punitive against the police.” She questioned what was so wrong in Purcellville that a policing advisory committee was needed.
“Don’t tell me this is not political,” she said.
Charlene Lane,one of the first women to graduate from the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy in 1970, emphasized that Purcellville is not Chicago, regarding the police staffing levels of the rural Loudoun town compared with the nation’s third largest city.
Lane said the committee could lead to community groups actively searching for bias within the police department. She said it’s not a good idea to have the actions of the town’s police officers second guessed by an advisory committee just because it’s politically correct in 2020.
“The second [officers] take to wonder if a committee will disagree with their action may be the second that gets them killed,” she said.
Police Chief Cynthia McAlister also said she was concerned that the push to establish the committee was politically driven.
Councilman Tip Stinnette said he was aware of a fear within the communitythat the town had politicized the creation of the committee, but that the group was designed to unite and create partnerships, and not to divide the community.
Mayor Kwasi Fraser said it was not the Town Council’s intent to make the proposal a “political football.”
To the comments questioning the need for a police advisory group, Magoffin said the Purcellville Police Department does have issues. She pointed to the May 2014 incident in which a town police officer responded to a suicide call and ended up fatally shooting 17-year-old Christian Alberto Sierra as the teen moved toward the officer with a paring knife. Although no criminal charges were filed against the officer, a 2019 civil trial resulted in a jury finding that the officer was unjustified in his actions. He was ordered to pay Sierra’s family $3.81 million.
Still, former Town Council candidate Erin Rayner asked whether there was data available to show that the town’s police force exhibitssystemic racism.
McAlister noted that only 12 percent of the people arrested by Purcellville police officers for criminal activity in the past four years have been Black, and only 7 percent of the people officers have arrested for traffic-related charges in that time have been Black.
McAlister also provided statistics depicting the low numbers of resident complaints against her officers since she was hired in June 2015. Since then, 21 complaints have been filed, four of which resulted in oral counseling sessions and another four that resulted in written reprimands. That comes out to be about one resident complaint for every 485 residents in the past half decade, according to the most resent U.S. Census Bureau data.
“We do keep a good eye on what we’re doing,” she said. “I think our police department has come a long way.”
Ogelman said the committee would not undermine the police department, but would be a “force multiplier” for residents to voice the ways they would like to see law enforcement carried out in Purcellville.
“That’s what’s at issue here,” he said. “I think that this is what our town needs.”
Fraser and Vice Mayor Mary Jane Williams both presented a different argument for the need to form a citizen-led police advisory committee—because the community’s youth, and specifically Black youth, have a mistrust and overall misperception of the police.
Williams said her 20-year-old son feels like he has a target on his back.
“As a Black male in Purcellville, you are not one of the majority,” she said.
Fraser, who pointed out that he is the father of two sons, said the town’s Black community as a whole does not trust the police.
Councilman Ted Greenly said that if the committee were to be formed, he would like to see two kinds of people within its ranks—those who agree with the“defund the police” message and those who “back the blue.”
Before that happens, the Town Council will need to vote to create the committee, which it could do at its Sept. 22 meeting. Residents will also need to step up to help with the group’s creation. On Aug. 11, the town began soliciting responses from residents interested in that assistance. The town has now received interest from 36 residents.