Editorial: A quick guide to restoring public trust

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(File Photo)

Once again, the public’s faith in a vital city agency is at risk.

This time around it’s the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office. Last month, officials shocked the community with the announcement that a law enforcement officer — former sheriff’s Deputy Bryant Pegues — was in police custody after an inmate accused him of raping her in the city jail.

That charge has since been dropped, but authorities still will prosecute Pegues for carnal knowledge of an inmate. Few other details about the incident are known, but any time a member of a law enforcement agency is accused — or convicted — of wrongdoing, the entire agency, if not the criminal justice field, takes a hit in public perception.

Humans are infinitely fallible, but when an individual entrusted with upholding the law takes advantage of that trust, it rightly shakes the public’s confidence. This is not a new concept. The expression, “who watches the watchmen?” — a rough approximation of “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” — comes to us from a Roman poet.

In this case, the watchers will hail from Arlington County. Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne announced this week that deputies from the neighboring jurisdiction will review his agency’s policies, procedures and training in regards to the incident.

Though pleased with Lawhorne’s prompt call for an external evaluation, we hope the findings will be made public as soon as possible. This is not to insinuate that the sheriff’s office — either the Alexandria agency or its counterpart in Arlington — is incapable of handling the review professionally.

No, this is an issue of public trust. Once shaken, great lengths must be taken to restore and then preserve it.

In this case, that means knowing how — if the allegations are proven true, of course — this breach occurred. Do we need to know the gritty details of the offense? Probably not. But we need to know the circumstances that led to this alleged incident: What policies were flouted? What procedures failed? What loopholes were exploited?

Most importantly, what can be done about it? And when will those steps be taken?

Only when we know those details can public trust in the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office be fully restored. We hope Lawhorne and his colleagues in Arlington take a cue from the Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office’s handling of the police-involved shooting death of Taft Sellers last year. In that case, a detailed analysis of the incident was — eventually — distributed to the public.

That the document, which authorities had the power to keep under wraps if they so chose, was released went a long way to restoring the public’s faith in the police department.
It’s a shame that the alleged actions of one individual can besmirch an entire organization. But that is the reality, and doubly so when a law enforcement agency is involved.

When the time comes, we hope Lawhorne lays his cards on the table — face up.