The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arlington votes to create a civilian police oversight board

Placeholder while article actions load

The Arlington County Board voted Wednesday night to create a civilian group that has the ability to subpoena police and launch investigations of officers but cannot discipline them.

The unanimous vote caps months of debate in the Northern Virginia county on how much power should be afforded to the civilian board — a question faced by jurisdictions around the country as they take similar steps to ramp up accountability.

“The board considered the concerns of our community to build greater trust with and between our residents and communities of color and our police department,” said County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti (D). “I believe it will empower those in our community who haven’t always been well-served by our criminal justice system to have a voice and a mechanism for raising concerns.”

Many of those discussions were sparked after racial justice demonstrators nationwide called for greater scrutiny of police, particularly following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody last year.

The board will include seven Arlington residents and two nonvoting members with experience in law enforcement. The board can direct an independent police auditor — a new position also created by the ordinance — to conduct investigations of police misconduct. De Ferranti said it is unlikely that the board would be able to weigh in on discipline for individual officers unless the General Assembly allows civilian boards to hold closed sessions — a major request that he said county lawmakers will be taking to Richmond.

Besides getting closed meetings approved, de Ferranti also hopes to lobby the General Assembly to allow localities to create civilian oversight of sheriff’s offices and move the auditor position from reporting under the county manager to reporting under the county board.

The county board was operating under limits put forward by County Manager Mark Schwartz, which gave the oversight board less power than a panel of local stakeholders recommended and angered some community activists. The board went further than Schwartz suggested, giving the auditor power to subpoena records and conduct investigations concurrently with the police. But the oversight board can only review those probes once they are complete. The county manager can block the release of some files on the grounds that it will compromise an active investigation, although the auditor could challenge that decision in court.

Activists argued that the county should have rejected Schwartz’s limitations and allowed the new body to have more direct access to records and more independent authority separate from the auditor, who will be hired by the county manager.

“I can’t say we’re happy, because there’s more work that needs to be done,” Arlington NAACP President Julius D. “JD” Spain Sr. said after the vote. “They cared more about the morale and welfare of our law enforcement officers than they did about the residents of Arlington County.”

County manager in Arlington pushes weaker police review board

During more than an hour of public comments in a special meeting Wednesday night, civilian speakers expressed a desire for a more powerful review board. A handful of police union representatives argued that greater disciplinary and investigative abilities would undermine department morale.

Wilma Jones, who is Black, recounted how her son had recently been followed home by officers and said Schwartz’s plan would “continue the status quo” instead of following the desires of Arlington voters and the abilities granted by the Virginia General Assembly last year.

Under legislation passed by lawmakers in Richmond, localities are allowed to set up civilian boards with the ability to subpoena police and make disciplinary decisions, up to and including firing an officer.

“Do you stand on the side of the community and the voters who put you in place or on the side of the county manager and the police?” Jones asked. Schwartz’s plan, she added, is “not what the majority of voters want. It’s not what the General Assembly intended.”

Jill DeWitt, who supported the idea of a more powerful board, noted that two Arlington police officers recently lost their certification for lying to internal investigators. DeWitt said that by limiting the board’s powers, county lawmakers were “doing what the police department wants.”

But Tracey Bates, an Arlington police officer and vice president of the Arlington Police Beneficiary Association, said it would exacerbate hiring issues or increase turnover on the force.

“With any relationship, you have to build trust,” he said, “or as I like to put it, you have to walk before you run.”

Another police union representative, Steve Yanda, discussed the stress of internal investigations — without mentioning that he had been involved in a fatal shooting in 2017. He was cleared of wrongdoing by then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos.

Advocates for changes in the criminal justice system had also expressed disappointment in Schwartz’s choice of Andy Penn to serve as the county’s police chief. Penn, who has been on the force for three decades, served as acting chief for nine months before being named to the post permanently last month.

“Elevating Penn to this position without transparent community engagement processes shows that Arlington County leadership does not value the critical impact of this decision on Black and Brown communities and is content to perpetuate systemic racial bias within the county,” the group Arlington for Justice said in a statement at the time. “He does not share a commitment to a more modern and equitable approach to public safety for all in Arlington.”

Schwartz has argued that Penn is committed to transparent and accountable policing, including the implementation of body-worn cameras and new community programs.

But police leaders have clashed with county leaders over the oversight board. Former chief Jay Farr cited the dispute as the main reason he retired early. On Wednesday, Penn said he welcomed oversight but had “concerns” about investigations being “taxing” on officers.

Nearby, the city of Alexandria is creating a more powerful police oversight board, which will have the power to conduct independent investigations, despite the mayor’s objections.

In other jurisdictions, leaders of boards that lack independent authority have expressed frustration, saying their limitations make them all but useless. But even strong oversight boards are often stymied by police and political opposition, a Post investigation found.

Alexandria creates civilian police review board

The vote in Arlington is one of several in recent weeks enabled by Democrats’ takeover of the General Assembly, a political transformation that has translated into legislation allowing liberal localities in Northern Virginia to take on more ambitious agendas.

Arlington on Saturday also approved collective bargaining for public employees, following a similar vote by Alexandria earlier this year. Fairfax and Loudoun counties also are considering approving the practice.