Virginia ‘conservator of peace’ program flawed, some say

As a Foggy Bottom resident, area entertainment executive and chairman of the District’s alcohol control board, Charles Brodsky seemed an unlikely candidate to become a Virginia law enforcement officer.

But in October, an Alexandria judge signed a three-page order appointing Brodsky a “special conservator of the peace,” giving him the authority to make arrests without a warrant, direct traffic, use flashing red and white police lights, and carry a gun on duty.

The archaic Virginia designation aims to create a shadow police force to beef up security on behalf of private companies. But on May 28, Brodsky was arrested and charged with impersonating an officer after two D.C. officers spotted him removing police lights and a placard from the dash of his car, which was parked illegally in Adams Morgan.

Brodsky has pleaded not guilty. But his arrest highlights what critics contend is a flawed program that permits hundreds of special conservators, many armed, to operate in a shadowy space between private security and public police. Although many states have similar hybrid programs called “special police,” Virginia’s conservators have among the broadest police powers — they are often allowed to work on public property — with only minimal mandatory training.

The issue is further complicated when cross-jurisdictional issues arise: In the District, Virginia conservators have faced gun charges, and the D.C. police department has warned reserve officers, several of whom have conservator licenses, not to bring Virginia-issued firearms into the city.

The conservator concept dates to pre-Colonial days in England. Conservators petition a court for their licenses, and judges write orders tailored to each applicant. Brodsky’s order stipulates that he must provide security on private property in Alexandria on behalf of D&D Security Training Academy, or his license will automatically expire.

According to the D.C. police report, Brodsky said that “a company sponsored him for his certification but he does not work for them.” Online biographies list Brodsky as chairman and chief executive of Washington Sports and Event Management and founder of the Nation’s Triathlon.

Brodsky had resigned as the District’s alcohol control board chairman a day before his arrest. Neither he nor the owners of D&D Security responded to telephone calls and e-mails requesting comment.

Lisa McGee, a manager at the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, which regulates the conservator program, had not heard of Brodsky’s arrest until told by a reporter.

“The regulations establish standards which are designed to secure the public safety and welfare against deceptive or misleading practices” by conservators, said McGee, declining to discuss specific cases.

Kevin Rychlik, who operates a private security company in Manassas, said he does not offer conservator training because the program is ripe for abuse. “It gives people a lot of power without requiring the training they need,” he said. “I don’t think it should exist.”

In some states, special police officers are required to undergo hundreds of hours of training, matching the amount required of traditional officers. In Maryland and the District, special officers can carry a gun and make arrests, but they are confined to working on private property. In the District, a separate group of volunteer reserve officers helps the D.C. police department with traffic control, patrols and administrative duties.

For decades, Virginia allowed judges to name conservators without requiring applicants to undergo training or regulatory oversight. In 2005, the General Assembly passed a law requiring all conservators to take 24 hours of classroom instruction and 16 additional hours of firearms training for those seeking to carry handguns.

Today, there are 744 Virginia special conservators, 422 of whom are allowed to be armed, state regulators say. The state does not track the numbers of arrests or citations made by conservators, McGee said.

Filling a gap

Proponents say conservators fill a gap between security guards, who are confined to private property, and municipal police, who are too busy to focus on private organizations.

Conservators are employed by hospitals, gated communities, apartment complexes in crime-ridden neighborhoods and quasi-governmental agencies such as airports. Fifteen armed conservators protect George Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon. Several municipal governments, including Fairfax and Prince William counties and Newport News, have employees who earn conservator licenses for use as park rangers or trash collectors.

“With the private sector, you can tell your [conservators] that ‘I want this done and that done,’ whereas with police, even an off-duty officer, if they get a call from the department, they have to fly across the city,” said Richmond conservator William Crawford. Private companies “want to maintain their security officers on their own properties. We get paid to do things police will not do.”

In the private sector, conservators have run afoul of traditional police for rigging their vehicles to resemble those of state troopers. Several years ago, the legislature disallowed conservators’ use of blue police lights after receiving complaints.

Firearms are another source of contention. In 2008, Falken Industries, a Manassas private security firm owned by special conservator Robert Ord, was contracted by a Southeast Washington elementary school after a shooting. Two Falken guards sent to the campus were arrested by D.C. police, who confiscated their handguns.

An arrest warrant was issued for Ord, who responded by filing a lawsuit alleging that the warrant was issued without cause. The D.C. attorney general revoked the warrant, and a Superior Court judge has yet to hear the case.

But Ord continues to press the case because he and other conservators think they are covered by the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act, a 2004 federal law that allows qualified officers to carry concealed firearms throughout the country. “If I want to go to D.C. to check my employees and I have a pistol, I can’t be arrested,” Ord said.

The Virginia attorney general’s office has not issued an opinion. And the District continues to arrest conservators carrying guns inside city limits: In August, officers responding to reports of gunshots in Southeast Washington found conservator James Thorne, who lives in Oxon Hill and works for a private security company, at the scene with a concealed Glock 31 .357-caliber handgun in his waistband.

In charging Thorne on three counts related to carrying a gun without a license, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenya Davis argued that conservators are not covered by the 2004 law. Thorne’s conservator license confined his powers to Fairfax County and allowed him to carry a gun only while on duty, Davis wrote in a brief.

Appealing jury’s verdict

Thorne, who was found guilty, has appealed the jury’s verdict. Now defending him is the same person who submitted Ord’s legal brief: lawyer Matthew LeFande, a former D.C. reserve police officer and a conservator himself. He operates a state-certified conservators’ training program in Arlington County through which several other D.C. reserve officers have obtained conservator licenses.

LeFande’s permit to carry a concealed firearm was revoked by an Arlington judge last year after he was accused of stalking an ex-girlfriend, a full-time D.C. police officer, and agreed to a consent order mandating he remain 100 feet from her.

McGee declined to disclose whether the agency was aware of LeFande’s legal troubles, and LeFande did not respond to requests for comment. His training academy is in good standing with the state, McGee said, and he — like Thorne and Brodsky — retains his conservator license.

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