Arlington Co. votes to create civilian police oversight board, with limits

Arlington has made a step toward police oversight, but some say it's not enough. WTOP's Neal Augenstein reports. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

The Arlington County Board has voted to create a civilian police oversight board, however some believe the panel should have more power in attempting to ensure officers correctly use the power they’re granted when they take the oath to protect and serve.

In addition, the Board voted to create an independent Policing Auditor, to work with the Community Oversight Board.

Under a Virginia law passed last year, localities are entitled to establish civilian boards with the power to subpoena police and make disciplinary decisions, including firing officers.

After a year of debate, the Arlington County Board voted to allow the civilian police oversight board to do its own investigation, concurrently with an internal police investigations.

However, the Community Oversight Board’s role in discipline will be limited to reviewing and recommending actions, rather than imposing them.

During the public comment period before the vote, some residents opined the original proposal by County Manager Mark Schwartz deprived the community from effecting change.

Residents questioned why the county board would allow the police department to maintain control over its internal investigations. They questioned giving the civilian board oversight but not giving it subpoena power.

However, members of the public, officers and the police unions spoke in favor of Schwartz’s compromise.

One Arlington officer said his colleagues feel afraid: “Scared that they might be doing the right thing in the performance of their duties, and that the public may disagree.”

“Subpoena power is not the only way to address the trust issues that exist between the police and the community,” said another supporter of Schwartz’s proposal.

Eventually, the board did grant the COB the ability to apply to the Arlington Circuit Court for a subpoena, if good faith efforts to participate in a concurrent investigation with the police department don’t provide access to documents or requested witnesses.

The Arlington County Board will review the effectiveness of its proposal in about 18 months.

Schwartz acknowledged discussion about the role of the civilian oversight board will continue: “It’s already been 360 days since I committed to doing this, and it seems like the road ahead is still a little bit lengthy.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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