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Arlington debates implementing a police review board with teeth

Emergency responders walk outside the Ballston Quarter mall in Arlington, Va., in September 2019. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

To reduce disparities in policing, Arlington, Va., should give a civilian review board investigative and disciplinary power while reducing police involvement in traffic enforcement and mental health crises, a committee recommended this week.

Spurred by the killing of George Floyd in police custody last year, cities and counties around the country have pledged to confront bias in their departments. D.C. passed sweeping new accountability legislation last year over police criticism. Maryland is considering its own dramatic changes.

“We do some things well, but there’s always room for improvement,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said at a Monday evening meeting where the proposals were presented.

A 15-member committee of advocates, attorneys and police spent seven months reviewing police practices locally and nationally to make the recommendations, which county officials will consider.

The committee assumed that Arlington would form a civilian board to oversee police, a step taken by many jurisdictions to increase accountability and trust in their communities.

Arlington’s board should be led by an independent auditor with experience monitoring law enforcement agencies, a majority of the committee recommended. Along with reviewing internal investigations and disciplinary decisions, the board should have the power to take and investigate complaints on its own, including having the power to subpoena information, the group said.

It was only last year that investigative review boards were made possible under Virginia law. Alexandria is also moving toward establishing a powerful civilian board, despite opposition from the mayor. In addition, Arlington and 10 other police departments in Northern Virginia have formed a pact to investigate one another’s police shootings, in-custody deaths and officer suicides.

A minority of members of the committee in Arlington wanted a less powerful review board, saying that independent investigations would be seen by the police department “as an indication of a lack of trust.”

Sam Walker, a professor at the University of Nebraska who studies police accountability, said civilian review boards tend to be ineffective; he favors an independent-monitor model with paid investigators.

“This is complicated work,” he said. “Volunteers don’t have the time, and they don’t have the expertise.”

A spokeswoman for the Arlington County Police Department, Ashley Savage, said the department would “work collaboratively” with county officials “to ensure accountability.”

Scott Wanek, president of the Arlington Coalition of Police, said his members did not oppose the review board doing its own investigations. “Any opportunity the community has to have a better idea what we’re doing is a good thing,” he said.

But he said the police were “not thrilled” about the possibility of limiting traffic enforcement, which he argues helps prevent more serious crimes. “We’re taking a lot of illicit firearms and drugs out of vehicles on traffic stops,” he said. “I haven’t heard a way to effectively replace that.”

The group also recommended expanded use of red-light cameras as a way to take racial bias out of traffic policing and said fines should be set on a “sliding payment scale . . . based on income levels and fixed expenses” to address the economic consequences of increased enforcement.

“Traffic safety increases significantly when these cameras are in place,” Deputy Public Defender Allison Carpenter, a member of the committee, said at the meeting Monday. “Our suggestions are not at all in order to get money for the county.”

The group also suggested the county look into using sheriff’s deputies or dedicated traffic safety officers, rather than police, to deal with “scooter congestion” and other issues that plague the D.C. suburb.

Prosecutors should pursue cases involving false, racially motivated 911 calls, the group recommended, while acknowledging that in “most circumstances” those allegations are difficult to prove. So the focus should be on educating residents that “differences among community members” are not a reason to call the police.

All patrol officers should be trained in crisis intervention, the panel recommended, and the country mental health crisis center should be open at all times as an alternative to jail.

Eventually, mental health professionals should respond to crisis calls whenever safe, the group recommended.

In a review of mental health calls, ACPD Lt. Matthew Puia, also a committee member, said at the meeting, in “the vast majority of circumstances . . . law enforcement is not needed.”

Special courts for people with mental health, behavioral and drug problems should also be expanded, the group said.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which advises police across the country, said many localities are working on ways to move police out of social services.

“The reason people call the police is simply because they don’t know who else to call, but that shouldn’t mean that the police can’t coordinate with other city agencies to respond,” he said. The challenge, he said, is finding the resources to make alternative options available 24/7: “That’s what’s a work in progress right now.”

Schwartz said the recommendations would be considered in coming weeks as part of the budget process. The county also tasked a legal expert with reviewing current police practices; that report is forthcoming.

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