By Will Schick | [email protected]
City Council convened a special legislative meeting on March 17 to discuss a draft ordinance that, if passed, will establish a new civilian police oversight board with broad authority to investigate police misconduct. Council voted to docket the draft ordinance for a final vote during the April 17 public hearing.
The proposed ordinance comes amid much discussion and debate between the community, city and members of council over how Alexandria can provide greater oversight and transparency on policing in the city.
As written, the ordinance calls for City Council to appoint an independent board of seven members of the community, which will include at least three members from historically marginalized groups and at least one member who represents a social justice organization. The board would also include at least one non-voting member with previous experience in law enforcement.
Additionally, the ordinance calls for the appointment of an independent policing auditor and investigator to serve as part of the staff for this board to assist with investigating allegations of police misconduct or wrongdoing.
Several members of the public testified at the hearing in support of and against the new ordinance.
Lindsay Lawson Battaglia, a resident of Alexandria and member of Racial Justice Alexandria, said the ordinance fell short of what is needed.
“Specifically, there’s a lack of transparency … and the findings of the board are not binding,” Battaglia said. “Those factors are vital if the city is interested in establishing a community review board that residents can trust and that can make meaningful change …”
Battaglia said it was important that these changes be made to address gaping racial inequities in policing.
“There’s research that tells us that Black and white people use and sell drugs at roughly the same rate. In 2018, in Alexandria, a Black person was five times more likely to be charged with marijuana than a white person. Black people make up 20 percent of our city’s population,” Battaglia said. “That is staggering.”
Mark Blackwell, a board member of the Alexandria chapter of the Police Benevolent Association and an Alexandria police officer of 15 years, said that while the majority of his association’s members feel a civilian review board is unnecessary, the board supports it.
“[Our organization] feels that the Alexandria Police Department is a highly-trained professional organization that will benefit from a properly qualified and staffed civilian review board enhanced by the use of a body-worn camera system,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell emphasized the importance of allowing any approved civilian review board to have access to all documentation for investigations.
“We’re open to a review board that reviews and has full access to documentation from investigations which includes video and audio documentation as well as witness accounts,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell also said that he hoped a civilian review board would help improve the relationship between APD and the community.
“We hope that the review board will increase transparency, public trust and police accountability,” Blackwell said.
Members of council discussed a number of amendments to include in the draft ordinance and posed concerns about whether the board should be able to access information that is part of ongoing criminal investigations, as well as whether there should be additional board seats reserved for members of the Alexandria student population.
Councilor Mo Seifeldein said that he believed the board should be granted the authority to review materials and documents that are part of ongoing criminal investigations in closed-door sessions.
“This [clause] prohibits the APD from releasing that information to the board and I think … it should be released to the board, but it should be held in confidence until the investigation is completed,” Seifeldein said.
Citing concerns about the potential for compromising active criminal investigations, Mayor Justin Wilson disagreed.
“I am very concerned about doing anything that threatens a criminal investigation, particularly if it involves an officer who has committed wrongdoing,” Wilson said.
When asked, City Attorney Joanna Anderson advised that the best way to safeguard information concerning active criminal investigations was to not share the information until after the investigations are completed.
“Better to have the criminal investigation go first. That’s the best practice. That is what we do today with our administrative investigations. So, that’s my recommendation. But you do have the legal authority to do either,” Anderson said.
Given the concerns presented by Wilson, Seifeldein suggested that instead of granting the board the authority to review the documents that are part of ongoing criminal investigations, they could offer this power to the independent investigator.
Councilor Del Pepper asked whether it was even valuable for the investigator to be granted access to information they are not able to share with members of the civilian review board or take action on.
“What would be the point of the investigator to have it, if he can’t share it with the committee for them to take action or to talk about it, and being ready to take action?” Pepper asked.
Other members of council supported Seifeldein’s idea and included his proposed amendment, allowing the independent investigator to have access to this data, in the revised ordinance.
Seifeldein also suggested saving space on the civilian police review board for an Alexandria City Public Schools student who would have limited access to information concerning investigations.
“We want to develop not only the next generation, but leaders and people who are also ingrained in the system so [they] understand how it works,” Seifeldein said.
Seifeldein also said that he was proposing this amendment “cautiously” and thought the measure would benefit from discussion.
Several members of council expressed concern for the amendment, if not the idea of student involvement in general.
Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker said she thought there were better ways to incorporate student voices into matters regarding police oversight.
“I certainly appreciate the intent of having a student member and mentorship … [but] there are advantages to having a body comprised of students rather than putting one or two students on a body and then limiting sort of their hours and their access,” Bennett-Parker added.
Councilor John Chapman said that it was important to include students outside of the Alexandria City Public Schools system in any discussion about student involvement in civics.
“As we look at any representation, I always want to remind folks that you have a number of kids in the city that do not just go to Alexandria City Public Schools,” Chapman said.
Given the feedback from other members of the council, Seifeldein withdrew this proposed amendment.
Of note, the revised ordinance includes more specific language on the qualifications of the non-voting member of the board, specifying that they must be an Alexandria resident who has not been a member of a police force for at least three years.
Aguirre later made a motion seconded by Chapman to introduce the revised ordinance at the council public hearing on April 17.