Purcellville Town Council’s consideration of a Community Policing Advisory Committee took a step further Tuesday night with discussion of an ordinance change during a public hearing.
The proposal has been spearheaded by a group of local residents, including former Town Councilman Nedim Ogelman. It comes amid a national movement to raise awareness about police brutality following the high-profile death of George Floyd and other Black Americans.
A handful of local residents spoke on both sides of the issue.
At odds with the initiative, Erin Rayner asked why the committee was being considered and what problem in Purcellville the committee would be trying to fix. Rayner ran unsuccessfully for a seat on council earlier this year.
Charlene Lane, a town resident, said she was the first of two women to graduate from the Northern Virginia Police Academy. She expressed concerns about the committee and the impact on the police department.
“When respect for law enforcement is gone, so will law and order in the town,” she said.
Similarly, Rosemary Wagner said the concept of the committee is upsetting, and she feels it is punitive against the police.
On the other side, Pastor Dave Milam and Ogelman, who have been working on the formation of the committee, spoke about what they see as its benefits.
“I sense there is a possibility of a broader level of participation as a benefit to the police department. I’ve seen [the] effects of racism under the surface, and we don’t realize the things that people of color face. My hope as a regular participant of what we do as a town is not to be reactionary but prepare to respond to issues,” Milam said.
Ogelman added, “We are lucky and blessed to have a great police force and a safe town, but that might not always be the case. We need to look at ways to make our community better.”
In response to questions about what the committee’s aim would be, Purcellville Police Chief Cynthia McAlister provided information about internal and external complaints against the police force in the last five years. Per McAlister, there have been 35 internal general complaints that have been investigated. This led to 13 of those involved being asked to have counseling, three written reprimands, one resignation, one termination and one suspension.
Out of the 21 external complaints, four received oral counseling and four had written reprimands.
McAlister said that 12 percent of arrests involved African Americans in criminal cases and 7.2 percent for traffic violations since 2016.
“This is pretty comparable to our population, and often people who are arrested are coming from out of town,” she said.
McAlister said she supports the committee, but she doesn’t want it to be politically motivated.
“This should be friendly and should not have a tone to it,” she said.
Town Council members spoke mostly in support of the initiative.
“This will provide a lens to involve the police department, community and Town Council and will enhance communications between all of them,” said Councilman Chris Bertaut.
Vice Mayor Mary Jane Williams said she would like to get the youth involved. Her son, who is Black, said he feels he has a target on his back as a Black male in Purcellville.
“This is not just about racism either. Are we targeting people because of their age?” she said.
Councilman Joel Grewe, however, said he believes the proposal has a hostile perception, and he doesn’t see himself supporting it.
“As long as that perception is held, the committee will be viewed adversarially. Because of the way it came about, I can’t fully blame people for that perception ... I don’t think I can support this,” Grewe said.
Councilman Ted Greenly said he would like to resolve communications issues surrounding the proposal and find a “happy medium.”
“As it is, the document is well-written, but it is constrictive. It is up to us to think how deep do we want to go. We owe it to our community. The perception in the community is this is a political football, and we have to help them get past that,” Greenly said.
Mayor Kwasi Fraser said the program is not intended to be political.
“I see it as a force multiplier and a way to strengthen our partnership and relationship with the police department and community at large,” he said. “I know a lot of folks in this room do not have to go home to their two black sons, but I do, as does Mary Jane. There is a perception of mistrust for the police and that is prevalent in the Black community. That perception — fact or fiction ... the only way we address that is through evolution of conversations.”
The next steps include another discussion at a council work session on Sept. 22, followed by a vote on Oct. 13.
The town has received communication from 36 residents interested in serving on the committee. If finalized, the committee will be made up of nine people.