The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss establishing a county police department in early 2020. If supervisors advance the measure, the final decision will fall to voters via referendum, and several steps will take place in order to implement changes to the current state of law enforcement. Here's a rundown on the issue.
Why is this being discussed?
Less than 24 hours after November's election, Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large) raised the idea of implementing a county police department. In the wake of winning her second term, Randall said she was concerned with deputies’ job security and the office’s transparency.
Newly re-elected Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman (R) has long been opposed the idea and has pointed to the county's relatively low crime rate and his office's numerous accolades in response.
What are the functions of a county police department versus a county sheriff's office?
A locality's police department essentially handles all the law enforcement duties of that locality, according to Virginia Code 15.2-1704.
Were a Loudoun police department to be implemented, there would still be a sheriff's office, but it would merely have oversight of the county courthouse and the county jail.
Under Virginia Code 15.2-528, the county executive would have supervision and control of the county police force.
Loudoun does not have a county executive under its traditional form of government. Instead, it has a county administrator. Randall has said a county police department and its chief would ultimately report to the county administrator.
There are several forms of county government in Virginia.
Establishing a police department is not required under the current “traditional” form of government. However, under a county executive and urban county executive form of government, having a police department is required.
County manager form, county manager plan and county board are the alternative forms of government. The alternative forms, while each is slightly different, vary from the traditional form in three respects, according to government officials: All except the county board form replace the elected commissioner of revenue and treasurer with an appointed director of finance; some of these forms, particularly the county manager form, confer somewhat greater formal powers on the chief administrative officer, and each form prescribes an organizational structure for the county government stipulating that the county will create certain departments.
No formal action has been taken to change the Loudoun County form of government.
Are there other county police departments in the commonwealth?
Yes, Virginia has a total of nine county police departments. In those counties, the police department handles law enforcement and investigative duties, and the sheriff’s office is responsible for court security and the local jail.
While funding for sheriff’s offices comes in part through the Virginia Compensation Board (state funding) and in part through local supplements, local police departments are funded through local funds and “599” funds, which are state funds to localities with police departments that meet certain criteria as defined in Virginia Code 9.1-165 through 9.1-172.
Sheriff’s offices receive funding from the Compensation Board (state funding), which determines a reasonable budget, and through local supplements, according to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.
The Towns of Leesburg ($887,660) and Purcellville ($114,155) were the only towns in Loudoun County to receive “599” funds in fiscal 2019, according to an Aug. 23 letter from the Department of Criminal Justice Services to committee leaders in the General Assembly.
The Compensation Board’s mission is to “determine a reasonable budget for the participation of the commonwealth toward the total cost of office operations for constitutional officers, and to assist those officers and their staff through automation, training and other means, to improve efficiencies and to enhance the level of services provided to the citizens of Virginia.”
What is the history on county police department discussions?
In 2008, Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott York recommended that county staff perform a study on law enforcement service and delivery.
The request was due to the county’s growth, “service delivery” and “efficiency,” according to county records. From 1990 to 2008, the county grew from 86,000 to more than 280,000 residents. (Loudoun's current population is approximately 406,000.) The sheriff’s office has grown to become the largest in the commonwealth.
Steve Simpson, then-county sheriff, described the conversation as a “kick in the teeth.” He opposed York’s recommendation.
The board at the time was concerned about costs of the studies, how two law enforcement agencies would collaborate, response times and accountability of the sheriff’s office.
“My question would be why are we trying to fix something that we know is not broken ... ,” Simpson said. "The only thing this really changes is the fact that I'm elected versus being appointed. That's the only change that comes out of this.”
York withdrew his motion after nearly 40 minutes of deliberation with his colleagues. He stated, “… at the end of the day, all I was trying to attempt here is that we have an independent group come in here and take a look at even the current model that we use, is it the most efficient way, are there suggestions that we could do to accomplish what we need to do? But that's OK, I withdraw my motion.”
In June 2012, the Loudoun County Government Reform Commission (LCGRC) was established to analyze whether reforms should be made to Loudoun County government, including the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office.
After multiple meetings were held with Sheriff Chapman, LCSO staff members, and staff members of neighboring jurisdictions in both sheriff’s offices and police departments, the commission recommended against establishing a police department in Loudoun.
The opinion came after the group analyzed “funding mechanisms, personnel requirements, infrastructure costs and process changes.”
“The Government Reform Commission strongly recommends that the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors maintain the current structure of a Sheriff’s Office without adding a police department,” notes a 2012 memorandum from the commission.
Elsewhere in Virginia, at least two counties have voted on referendums to establish a police department.
Fifty-four percent of the 28,836 voters in Roanoke favored the idea to establish a police department on Nov. 7, 1989, according to a Roanoke spokeswoman.
Ten years later, York County voters decided to keep its sheriff’s office with 74 percent of the voters endorsing that decision, according to a county elections office official. The referendum received 5,259 no responses compared to 1,842 yeses.
What are people saying about this?
Virginia Sheriff’s Association Executive Director John Jones said Loudoun has a “top notch” agency and “great reputation” across the commonwealth. Jones said “nothing would be gained” if Loudoun transitioned to a police department.
“The creation of a police department will not serve the citizens of Loudoun County because they would lose their ability to choose that law enforcement executives,” Jones said. “So, all it would do is move the top law enforcement person from the elected official that responds directly to the people to a bureaucracy answer to the Board of Supervisors."
One of the cost benefits under the current system is that the county does not have to cover liability insurance, Jones said. The sheriff’s office is covered by a risk management policy.
“...this [is] nothing against police chiefs, but your sheriff answers directly to the people,” Jones said. “He does not answer to the Board of Supervisors and sometimes that is not appreciated by the Board of Supervisors. They want to control policy relating to public safety. The sheriff needs to be independently elected, autonomous so that he can respond to needs as they arise without influence from other politicians.”
Fraternal Order of Police of Virginia President John Ohrnberger did not wish to speak on the matter, saying only that “The Fraternal Order of Police of Virginia's practice is to stay out of local politics.”
Randall said in the press conference she would bring the item forward early next year.
If the board were to move forward with a county police department, a referendum is required and must be approved by voters in the county and enacted by the General Assembly, according to Virginia Code 15.2-1702.