Council plans community police review board

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Police Chief Michael L. Brown at a protest in Old Town on June 5. (Photo/Missy Schrott)
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

A new chapter in the civil rights movement has emerged across the nation in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. In Alexandria, city leaders and some residents want structural changes to ensure something similar doesn’t happen in the Alexandria Police Department.

At city council’s legislative meeting on Tuesday, Councilor Mo Seifeldein brought forward a resolution condemning police brutality and systemic racism. One of the more controversial aspects of the resolution was a proposal to establish a community police review board. The board would be composed of community members and would provide oversight of the APD, Seifeldein said.

Council unanimously approved the resolution and, in doing so, directed the city manager and city attorney to return to council in the first legislative meeting of September with a proposal to establish the board.

Councilor Canek Aguirre expressed support for establishing the board and emphasized the importance of taking action in response to the demands of community members.

“Talk is cheap. What people want to see is action,” Aguirre said. “We’re using the power that we have, in terms of policy making and being able to change policies and review policies, so that we can essentially create this new normal that we need to see in our society.”

Police Chief Michael Brown told council he was hesitant about the connotation associated with community police boards.

“A review board, as a phrase in our world in policing, has a very negative connotation,” Brown said. “There’s a history when they first created the citizen review boards and in the business of law enforcement it’s considered, in many cases, a threatening title. It takes many forms, but the visceral reaction by police is that they’re coming out to get you.”

Brown pointed out that the APD already receives oversight from the Human Rights Commission, a 14-member commission that works to facilitate the understanding of rights and responsibilities and holds public hearings on specific complaints. Brown said he meets with the commission once a year and its executive board twice a year.

Per council’s direction, city staff will look into the Human Rights Commission’s relationship with APD – and any possible overlap with a new police review board – before bringing a proposal to council.

“My only concern is trying to identify the gaps in what we currently have with the Human Rights Commission and kind of what the end state is,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “I don’t think our end state is the title of the board, I think our end state is a set of functions and responsibilities for whatever that citizen oversight of police is to be.”

Seifeldein argued that there’s a benefit in having an authority that is solely dedicated to overseeing the police department.

“I think having an independent body that is exclusively dedicated to this one thing will serve our objective and the goal of the community at large,” Seifeldein said. “To that end, I expect the body, when formed with the approval of council, would have some representation from council, some attorneys, some retired law enforcement, maybe some judges, community members, teenagers who are constantly dealing with police, teenagers of color that is, so we want it to be a representative body.”

Councilor Amy Jackson expressed support for the board, but echoed Brown’s concern that its negative connotation could drive officers away from the department.

“What we don’t want to see is a retreat of police officers that already don’t have the compensation … that other [jurisdictions] might give them. We want to keep the good guys here,” Jackson said. “We have to find a balance to know you’re not being punished by having this community review board established, that it’s just to hear the problems associated with any instances that may arise in our community.”

Earlier in the meeting, City Manager Mark Jinks had Brown talk to council about accountability and use of force in the police department, as well as APD’s response to city protests. Consistent with the city’s position, the APD is supportive of peaceful protests and has been present at the various demonstrations that have taken place across the city, Brown said.

Regarding accountability and use of force, APD released a Frequently Asked Questions webpage in response to questions the department has received from residents, Brown said. The FAQ sheet is available at www.alexandriava.gov/police/info/default-115812.html.

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