After months of debate, the Purcellville Town Council has created a new resident advisory panel to provide input into operations of the Police Department.
The council voted unanimously Tuesday night to create the Community Policing Advisory Committee, a resident-led group to provide the council with recommendations on how the community at large feels the town’s police officers should carry out policies and practices. The vote followed discussion centered on confusion over whether town employees should, or could, be on the committee and to whom committee members should report police officer complaints.
Ultimately, the council voted to prohibit town staffers from being appointed to the committee as voting members and to require committee members to forward complaints to one of five department heads—not directly to the Town Council.
The council will appoint nine voting members to the committee. All members need to be at least 16 years old and either reside within the town’s corporate limits or attend school therein.
There will also be one Town Council liaison and one town staff liaison, both of whom will not be allowed to vote.
During the final round of debate on Tuesday, Councilman Ted Greenly said he disagreed with prohibiting town staffers from applying for appointment to the committee’s ranks, since some staffers are also town residents who pay taxes.
Vice Mayor Mary Jane Williams agreed with Greenly, adding that she felt it would be wrong to disallow, for instance, a part-time staffer who works 10 hours a week from applying for appointment to the committee.
“That’s my sticking point,” she said.
But Mayor Kwasi Fraser said he was “totally against” allowing town employees on the committee.
“I see that as setting a precedent that can be borderline conflict of interest to have an employee of the town be a member of an extension of council,” he said.
Town Attorney Sally Hankins agreed, noting that it’s good to have separation among appointed committee members and the town staff liaison, who will act as a professional advisor. From a legal perspective, Hankins said she would be more comfortable if town employees were not on advisory committees.
The ordinance the Town Council approved to create the policing advisory committee will be used as a template to update the ordinances for all other town committees, commissions and boards.
Moving forward, the new town practice—although it’s not explicitly written—will be for the Town Council to not appoint town employees to the Arts Council, the Board of Architectural Review, the Board of Zoning Appeals, the Economic Development Advisory Committee, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, the Planning Commission, the Tree and Environment Sustainability Committee and the Train Station Advisory Board.
“We’ll look at this as an opportunity to enhance that language in other committees, commissions and boards,” Fraser said.
Officer Complaints Go to Department Heads, Not the Town Council
Under the adopted procedures, when a committee member hears a complaint about a town police officer, they will be required to forward those to either Town Manager David Mekarski, Hankins, Police Chief Cynthia McAlister, Deputy Police Chief Dave Dailey or Human Resources Director Sharon Rauch.
Hankinspreviouslyemphasized that the committee would be different than others because of thelegal liability it would present the town once someone other than a department head hears about an officer complaint.
Councilman Stanley Milan on Tuesday questioned why complaints should not also be brought to Town Council members. He said he did not want to be “blindsided” by remaining unaware of a complaint.
Hankins said it’s necessary for the Town Council to know about most personnel issues because the town staff effectively deals with them in accordance with the town personnel manual, town policies and state and federal laws.
“Most of them you don’t need to know about,” Hankins said. “And when you do need to know about one, we tell you.”
Since June 2015, only 21 resident complaints have been filed against Purcellville Police officers, only five of which were sustained, according to a Sept. 8 audit of administrative police investigations provided by McAlister. Of those five sustained complaints, four resulted in verbal counseling and one resulted in a written reprimand. None resulted in the termination of an officer.
Goals and Powers: Enhance Communication, Recommend Solutions
According to the ordinance to create the committee, the group will predominantly strive to enhance communication and community engagement between the Town Council, the town police and residents on matters of police-community relations, police training, and police protocols.
Committee members will review community policing issues and make recommendations concerning the procedures and policies officers use, how officer complaints are handled, and how bias and deadly force cases are investigated. They will recommend solutions to the Town Council.
Former councilman Nedim Ogelman and longtime town resident Molly Magoffin suggested the group’s formation following a June 7 Black Lives Matter march in town.
Fraser and Williams have noted that the committee is needed because of the Black community’s views on police.
“There is a perception of mistrust for the police,” Fraser said at the Sept. 8 Town Council meeting.
Milan has said the committee will be a preventative measure to keep the town’s police force in check.
Councilman Tip Stinnette said Tuesday he has heard concern from multiple residents that the committee would be an oversight group. But, he emphasized, the committee will merely advise the Town Council on recommendations to improve the police force.
Some residents have voiced opposition to the formation of the committee, asserting that there is no need for the group because the town’s police department is operating without issues, that the group’s presence will adversely affect officers’ actions in the field, and that the committee’s proposed formation was based on a national narrative that hasn’t permeated Purcellville’s culture.