Does Loudoun Need a Police Department?

Phyllis Randall (left) and Mike Chapman (right). Photo credit: Loudoun Times

by Ken Reid

The latest battle between the Left and Right in Loudoun is not over CRT, but PD – as in, “police department.” Should Virginia’s most-populous county transfer key law-enforcement functions from the elected sheriff to a newly created civil-servant police chief?

No crime problem in Loudoun is driving this debate. No scandals, budgetary issues, or layoffs are afflicting the sheriff’s office. Loudoun (population 423,000 and growing) is among the wealthiest in the nation.

Rather, this is a conflict between the three-term Republican Sheriff, Mike Chapman and Democrat Board Chair Phyllis Randall, now in her 2nd term, primarily over her desire to have a Police Oversight Board, which Chapman, like most law-enforcement heads, opposes.

The Democrat-controlled Board, which probably had the votes to put the issue to the voters, opted instead to hire the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IAPD) to study the matter and determine the costs.

I was a Loudoun supervisor (2012-2015), when we studied the PD issue and rejected it. The main obstacle, as the IAPD report noted, is the structure of Loudoun’s government, where the executive and legislative powers rest with the Board of Supervisors. Our report did not cost $500,000 like the IPAD report did, but IAPD did conduct a much-more detailed analysis. Among the conclusions:

  • The cost to adopt a PD in Loudoun could be as much as $307 million over 10 years, and result in a net annual loss of revenue the state gives in aid.
  • All sheriff deputies and employees would have to reapply for jobs with the PD because they are employees of the sheriff, a constitutional officer, not the county.
  • Crime is low and morale great in the Sheriff’s Department.

The biggest obstacle is that the County has to petition the court for a referendum, and then, if approved, the Virginia General assembly has to enact enabling legislation.

As IAPD reported “Loudoun County’s form of government is highly relevant to this evaluation, specifically as it relates to the issues of accountability, oversight, and jurisdictional authority.”

Loudoun has a “traditional” form of county government in which the Board of Supervisors has both executive and legislative authority, and where five constitutional officers including the sheriff are elected county-wide.

Only eight counties in Virginia have a police department and all but one (King George, just east of Petersburg) did so by adopting a “county executive/county manager” form of governing structure. King George has but 43,000 residents, and the county police department is the only police force. There are no towns or cities with departments as in Loudoun.

In order to firewall the chief from political interference by the board, Loudoun would have to adopt a county executive kind of government similar to Fairfax and Prince William counties, where the sheriff is still elected (to handle the jail, courts and process serving), but the Police chief reports to the County Executive, whom the governing body appoints.

In order to do that, a referendum has to be conducted  and 20% of registered voters in the previous presidential election have to sign it to put it on the ballot. That would necessitate some 45,000 signatures!

The Loudoun Board deferred that idea when it was discussed in April 2021, opting instead to go with the IAPD study.

Following a long public input session in which opponents and supporters seemed evenly split, the Board voted on April 5 by 8-1 to “look into what the minimum qualifications to run for sheriff should be in Virginia,” Loudoun Now reported. “The qualifications to run for sheriff are the same as any other Virginia elected office: that the person running have been a resident for at least a year and qualified to vote—or in other words, 18 years old, a citizen, and not a felon.”

The newspaper said the board’s resolution called for staff and IAPD to “ develop minimum qualifications to run for sheriff in Virginia. That is with an eye toward later asking the General Assembly to put those requirements into law—a state constitutional amendment.”

This is another delaying tactic, in my view.  I don’t see how the GA is going to approve a constitutional amendment for this.

But it gives time for the Democrats to gin up support for moving to a PD or to ensure Sheriff Chapman supports an oversight board. The General Assembly in 2020 gave that authority to cities, towns and counties, except sheriff’s departments.  The process for a PD referendum is outlined here: 

A referendum poses many political risks, and opportunities.

Republicans advanced the argument: “Why fix something that isn’t broke” and carries an exorbitant cost? Also, they can argue that an elected sheriff is more accountable than an unelected police chief. Democrats will argue that creating a PD gets the politics out of the office. They also can document Chapman axing employees for supporting his campaign opponents.

However, Loudoun voters do not seem to care about taxes and spending, nor even know that the sheriff is elected. Fiscal conservatism is dead in NoVa, as most voters work in well-paying jobs created by government largesse (notably, Defense and Homeland Security, and local schools).

Second, political advantage in Loudoun is still to the Democrats. Despite being highly educated, Loudouners of late are lemmings in the voting booth, doing whatever Democrats put on their sample ballot. Chapman and three other constitutional officers won re-election in 2019 by narrow margins. The fifth, the Commonwealth’s Attorney, went to the Democrats for the first time in decades due to help from George Soros’ anti-law enforcement PAC.

Third, Democrat supervisors on April 5 raised questions about why IAPD did not address the “diversity” of the sheriff’s office, leading me to believe they could use diversity as a sound bite in a pro PD campaign.

Despite 2022 looking like a GOP year in the midterms, if the Loudoun Board puts the PD issue to the voters this fall, I think the measure would pass — which begs the question….Would Loudoun be better off long-term with an appointed police chief insulated from politics, particularly if Democrats continue to maintain their advantage in county elections?

For me, as a nearly 20-year Loudoun resident, I surely hope voters will stay the course and not opt for a PD, and in 2023, get rid of CRT, too!

Ken Reid is a former Loudoun County supervisor and member of the Leesburg Town Council and currently lives in Tysons Corner. He is active in Republican politics in Virginia and authored the book, The Six Secrets to Winning ANY Local Election and Navigating Elected Office Once You Win.