The challenge for Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D) and others supporting a shift from a county sheriff's office to a county police department is similar to one Randall faced a couple years back.
In 2017, Randall and the outgoing board dug in and declared a more than 60 percent pay raise for members of the Board of Supervisors was the right thing to do. Despite widespread public backlash and sharply divided supervisors, the board powered through and voted 5-4 in favor of the massive pay hikes.
Thanks to a section of Virginia code that prohibits local legislators from giving themselves a raise, the new salaries couldn't be implemented until the next board took office, so supervisors proclaimed they weren't voting on their own salaries. Still, it was no secret that several of those 2017 supervisors would be seeking re-election and favored in their contests. So while not technically giving themselves a fat new pay day, that's effectively what Randall and incumbents Tony Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) and Matt Letourneau (R-Dulles) did.
Here's where the sheriff's office-police department debate comes in: For better or worse, you can't separate the policy change and its impact on the office from the current office-holder. Shifting from a county sheriff's office to a county police department will inevitably appear an evaluation of the sheriff, whether it's Mike Chapman (R) now or some Democrat down the line.
A brief overview: Forever-growing Loudoun County has the largest full-service sheriff's office in the commonwealth, and proponents of instituting a county police department say a county police chief hired by the county administrator would mean more oversight of law enforcement. Neighboring Fairfax and Prince William have a county police department that handles law enforcement duties.
Were Loudoun to move to a police force, there would still be a sheriff's office – something required by the commonwealth's constitution – but the sheriff's office's powers would be dramatically diminished. The sheriff's office would be responsible for securing the county courthouse and local jail. A county police department, meanwhile, would be responsible for countywide crime and law enforcement – duties currently handled by the sheriff's office.
Supporters of the current system argue “don't fix what isn't broken,” and they say an elected sheriff gives voters the most direct voice in hiring the county's chief law enforcement officer.
Advocates for a county police department, meanwhile, say there's little true oversight of a sheriff elected in low-turnout, off-year elections. They further say deputies shouldn't be able to be fired for their political beliefs or merely because they disagree with the sheriff – something that is allowed under the current system.
While it's open for debate, we actually believe Randall when she says floating the idea of a county police force isn't a singular shot at Chapman. After all, this isn't an entirely new policy discussion – there were rumblings among supervisors on the current board that they should study the feasibility of a county police department, but the Republican majority opted against a domestic drama with Chapman. (For the record, there are current GOP office-holders in favor of a police department or, at least, studying the issue further.)
Still, Randall shouldn't act like there isn't an R vs. D consideration here. We highly doubt – highly doubt – the chairwoman would've broached the idea of a county police department the day after the election had Democrat Justin Hannah defeated Chapman.
There are honest arguments and questions on both sides of the debate. Indeed, with a low crime rate and generally safe citizenry, why fix something that doesn't appear broken?
But should deputies have no recourse if they're fired for their political beliefs?
Further, what are the costs associated with implementing a county police department? And how could a county police force impact law enforcement operations in Loudoun's incorporated towns?
As Chapman said after Randall's suggestion: “I think the citizens need to know what this is exactly about ... ”
We couldn't agree more, and we'd like to see a robust – while respectful, of course – debate ensue. In the end, should the Board of Supervisors decide to advance a county police proposal, it'll be up to Loudoun's voters to decide via referendum.
There are too many unknowns for us to take a position on the issue at this point. But we implore county leaders to consider the questions thoughtfully and honestly. We believe the inquiry should be done without the current sheriff in mind. But we also know there's no way that will happen – not when there's so much power at stake.