The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors will consider a proposed referendum that would drastically reshape policing in their Northern Virginia community.
The proposed referendum, which would be on the ballot this November, asks voters to decide if the county should establish its own police force — stripping many of law enforcement powers away from the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, led by Republican Mike Chapman.
The proposal is scheduled to be discussed when the board meets on July 21, and it has the backing of Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall, a Democrat.
If the proposal is approved, it would not take effect until 2024, after the current term of elected Sheriff Mike Chapman is complete.
“There’s a sheriff in Prince William County, Fairfax County, and Arlington and Alexandria,” said Randall in an interview with WTOP.
“But it’s also not unusual, especially for large counties, to have a police force that takes over the law enforcement. You don’t have one or the other, you have a sheriff for the duties the sheriff does and then law enforcement that falls under a police department,” said Randall.
If the issue goes to referendum and is approved by county voters, the sheriff’s office would still be in charge of court services and civil proceedings.
Randall said it would bring more accountability to law enforcement in Loudoun County by instituting civilian oversight that does not exist right now.
In a news release blasting the proposal, the sheriff’s office said civilian oversight already exists in the form of the four-year election cycle that’s put Chapman in office since 2012.
“This initiative seeks to take away your authority as a citizen in Loudoun County,” said the statement.
Sheriff Chapman, in an interview with WTOP, disagreed with any notion that establishing a county police department would take politics out of policing, which Randall said is the goal of this measure.
“A lot of the problem that you have right now with police chiefs is the fact they answer to elected officials and they are basically pawns right now,” said Chapman.
“They can’t exercise their expertise in the field of their chosen profession because they have political activists telling them what they can and can’t do, and it’s actually destroying law enforcement in many places in this country,” said Chapman.
“By putting this under the board of supervisors, putting the authority under Chair Randall, essentially makes her the police chief,” he added.
But Randall, who repeatedly emphasized that the move is less about Sheriff Chapman and more about the sheriff’s office in general — and any potential successors — said that’s not the case.
Instead, the proposed police chief would report to the county administrator, just like the fire chief in Loudoun County does.
Randall also pushed back on the idea that politics isn’t injected into the discussion right now, noting the fundraising and campaigning required to obtain the elected position.
“This is about ensuring that law enforcement is never political and it has the oversight and accountability no matter who may sit in that office,” she said
Chapman’s office also raised concerns about the cost of funding a new police department, with his statement claiming that “a 2020 LCSO internal study of this matter … [shows] the cost to taxpayers would exceed $20 million and that the change would put the long-standing success of the LCSO as one of the nation’s most highly-regarded, effective, professional and well-trained local law enforcement agencies at risk.”
Chapman told WTOP the full study will be released in the coming days.
When asked about the study, Randall said that’s the first she had heard about it, adding that it’s more proof of an earlier assertion she made that elected heads of law enforcement are able to shield information they don’t want made public.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Randall said. “This is the first time I’ve heard that number from the sheriff, this is the first time I heard that he did a study. Of course, if the sheriff does a study, he might cite any number he wants to cite, and I don’t know how he got to that number.”
Chapman said he didn’t think Randall had done enough work to support the referendum’s premise.
“It’s really sad on her part to have done such little research on this and to understand the consequences and costs of this and throwing it out to the public without knowing exactly how this is going to impact just a wonderfully run sheriff’s office,” said Chapman.
“We have the lowest crime rate in the entire Washington metropolitan area, certainly in Northern Virginia. We’re large and we’re very efficient and it’s because of the fact we’re not politically driven by a particular entity that we’re able to answer directly to the citizens we serve and provide this outstanding level of service,” said the sheriff.
Chapman called the 413,000 residents of Loudoun County the ultimate citizen advisory group.
“I don’t answer any one political party, political agenda, anything like that,” said Chapman.
“We answer to the citizens at large and quite frankly the reason we’ve been so successful is because of that. I don’t have somebody dictating what we can and can’t do,” said the sheriff.
Chapman said he thinks even if the proposal goes to referendum, the people in the county will vote to leave things as they are.
“She’s trying to fix something that’s not broken,” said Chapman, speaking of Randall. “And I think what you’ll see is the citizens are smart enough to say: ‘Hey we like what we got, we don’t need to go down this road.'”