Loudoun Co. won’t pursue police department; chair seeks to raise state bar for future sheriffs

Voters in Loudoun County, Virginia, will not be asked whether they want to add a police department, which would replace the sheriff’s office as the investigative branch in the county.

In Tuesday night’s Board of Supervisors meeting, after a presentation by the International Association of Chiefs of Police on what the county could expect if it were to convert the law enforcement functions of the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office into a police department, Chair Phyllis Randall shifted her attention toward future elected sheriffs.

“Sheriff Mike Chapman is qualified to be the sheriff of this county. He well exceeds the qualifications of what a police chief would have,” Randall said.

Chapman was elected in 2011 and is in his third four-year term. He has decades of local and federal law enforcement experience.

In a politically based environment — two elected officials, in leadership positions — Randall and Chapman are often at odds.

Over the years, Chapman has accused Randall and the board of a power grab, and has warned that public safety could suffer if the elected Board of Supervisors hired a police chief, rather than leaving the chief law enforcement authority in the hands of voters.

Randall told the board she had avoided responding to Chapman, on social media. “I’m not having a social media fight with the sheriff. I’m just not doing it.”

The position of sheriff is one of Loudoun County’s five Constitutional Officers — elected by the voters — along with Clerk of the Circuit Court, Commissioner of the Revenue, Commonwealth’s Attorney, and Treasurer.

As WTOP reported, the IACP study commissioned by the board concluded a conversion would cost anywhere from $213 million to $307 million over the course of 10 years. Several members of the board said the potential cost of adding a police department made it a non-starter.

“The cost of over $300 million over 10 years is just breathtaking,” said Leesburg District Supervisor Kristen Umstattd. “But also, when you look at the public satisfaction with the current sheriff’s office, I can’t come up with a good argument to move in the direction of a county police department.”

If the board chose to move forward with the formation of a police department, it would have to place a referendum on a future ballot. If voters approved the formation of a police department, legislation would have to be enacted by the General Assembly.

Supervisor Juli Briskman of the Algonkian district, and Ashburn Supervisor Michael Turner, were open to the idea of instituting a police department.

“I’m very, very concerned that we only have seven women in supervisory positions, and only two in command staff” in the sheriff’s office, Briskman said.

Turner pushed back on the argument that voters would retain authority over the person leading law enforcement: “Anybody have any idea on how many Virginia sheriffs have been recalled in 300 years? Zero. Once that person is elected they are all-powerful.”

Looking toward future sheriffs

While not suggesting the board consider putting the conversion on the ballot, Randall shifted toward the future, where a law enforcement novice could be elected sheriff.

“The qualification to be sheriff in Virginia is to be 18, and live here (in the county) for six months — that’s all,” Randall said. “The qualification to be sheriff is literally lower than the qualifications to be an entry-level person in the sheriff’s department — it’s ridiculous.”

“Some will say we don’t have to change that, because the decision will always be made by the public in elections,” Randall said. “In any election you can have a wave year,” where voters sweep in unqualified candidates, “because of the letter behind their name.”

Dulles District Supervisor Matt Letourneau agreed.

“Politicians run for office, and any politician can run for the office of sheriff, and if they run a good campaign, they could win,” Letourneau said. “We’ve seen this many times in many positions, the qualities that make a good candidate don’t always make a good individual serving in that office.”

Randall wants to raise the bar. She introduced a motion to address staff to work with IACP to develop “minimum qualifications for future candidates for the office of sheriff.”

In addition, Randall wants the board to push Virginia to upgrade its minimum qualifications as well. “The Board will consider adding this to its 2023 legislative program.”

When fellow board members pointed out the differences between a growing, diverse county like Loudoun, and a small county elsewhere in the commonwealth, Randall bristled at the idea of tweaking the language to make it more directly apply to Loudoun, improving its chances in Richmond.

“You do not make long-term decisions based on short-term personnel,” said Randall. “You make long-term decisions for the betterment of everyone, and I don’t believe that having someone who only has to be 18 years old and live here for six months is qualified to be sheriff.”

Randall’s motion to develop minimum requirements passed, with only Umstattd opposing.

Chapman: ‘I don’t disagree’ with raising standards

Wednesday morning, Chapman told WTOP he wasn’t aware Randall intended to ask the board to work toward raising minimum qualifications for future sheriffs statewide.

“I don’t even know that was an issue that was going to come up,” Chapman said.

Chapman said highly populated Northern Virginia is different from other parts of the state: “When you look at the quality of chiefs in the surrounding area, and how important it is to get qualified people in line to do this job, when I go ahead and leave, I don’t disagree with that.”

However, Chapman said he’s not certain “you could put that requirement in, statewide.”

“Every jurisdiction is a little bit different, and you have some areas where you might not get the level of qualifications you would appreciate” in a sheriff, Chapman said. “It certainly would be helpful to have someone with a high level of law enforcement experience, maybe certain college degrees, senior level leadership experience.”

Asked about Randall’s scenario, in which neither candidate had law enforcement experience, Chapman acknowledged it could pose potential problems.

“It really kind of comes up to the political party to put somebody up that has a high level of qualifications,” Chapman said, adding that’s why he was able to win his first Loudoun County election.

“When you’re elected, you answer to the people you serve, and that’s no different than anybody up there on the board of supervisors,” Chapman said.

While some board members have said that once elected, a sheriff can operate with little accountability, Chapman told members he was open to working to form a citizens review board, in a politically charged relationship between elected supervisors and an elected sheriff.

“Maybe having a board that can relay their concerns to us, and our concerns to them, might be sort of a good brokering step, rather than us getting into political fray,” Chapman said.

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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