Council approves police review board

Council approves police review board

By Will Schick |

City Council voted unanimously to pass a new ordinance establishing a community police review board during Saturday’s public hearing. The ordinance will establish the city’s first board of this kind, which will consist of eight members of the public who will be charged with the broad authority to investigate police misconduct.

Specifically, the board will have the authority to investigate cases involving severe misconduct, use of force, any incidents resulting in death or incidents in which an officer uses a “striking implement,” taser or pepper spray. The board can also issue subpoenas and make disciplinary recommendations. The ordinance takes effect on July 1, 2021.

According to the ordinance, the board will consist of seven voting members: at least three members of the public who come from “historically, racially or socially marginalized communities,” as well as at least one member representing a racial or social justice advocacy group. The board will also consist of, at minimum, one non-voting member who has previous experience in law enforcement and has not been in service for at least three years.

Except for the inaugural board, members will be appointed to serve for three-year terms. According to the legislation, some members of the first board will serve for a period of 18 months to ensure staggered terms and continuity among members.

Councilor Mo Seifeldein, who has supported and shepherded the community police review board ordinance from its earliest stages last summer, said the establishment of such a body is key for the city’s residents and the police department itself.

For Seifeldein, the establishment of “a strong and independent civilian oversight board that evaluates matters related to police misconduct is fundamental to creating safe communities and effective policing,” he said in a statement.

The approved ordinance comes after months of public debate within Alexandria over how the community can best address the need for greater transparency and accountability within the city’s police force. Council initiated the conversation last summer amid protests and a broader national conversation on how best to reform policing in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police officers.

“The country is traumatized almost daily with images of unjustified use of force at the hands of law enforcement,” Seifeldein said in his statement. “This has been the tragic reality of Black and brown communities for years and has largely been ignored. We cannot afford to ignore these challenges any longer, because Black, indigenous and people of color do indeed matter.”

A demonstration from the summer of 2020 where residents called for reforms in policing. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

While many members of the public who spoke at the hearing expressed satisfaction with the city’s ordinance, others said they were disappointed by what they perceived as the limited authority that will be granted to the board.

With the approved ordinance, an independent auditor will be hired to function on the board’s behalf when investigating cases. After conducting an investigation, the auditor will report to the board with their findings. The board will hold a public hearing, at the end of which the board can dismiss the complaint, refer the complaint to the Commonwealth’s Attorney or recommend disciplinary action be taken by the chief of APD.

According to the draft ordinance, the board is permitted to make a wide range of policy recommendations to APD as well. However, the ordinance does not require the department accept recommendations made by the board.

Emily Flores, a resident of Old Town who has lived in Alexandria for six years, said that limiting the board’s authority in this way is counterintuitive.

“My personal opinion is that this draft ordinance needs an addition mandating that APD not only publicly explain their reasoning for declining the board’s recommendations but demonstrate how it has implemented recommendations when it does agree,” Flores said.

Flores added that by neglecting to give the board the authority to require that APD respond to its requests, the ordinance undermines the board’s overall influence.

“Without this addition, the board can be rendered toothless because APD could simply agree to board recommendations with no explanation or follow up investigation to verify the actions taken actually fulfill the recommendation,” Flores said.

LaDonna Sanders, a native Alexandrian and member of Tenants and Workers United, said that she applauded the city’s efforts to establish this ordinance but believed there was still more to be done for it to be effective.

Sanders recommended broadening the scope of the board’s authority to encompass oversight of the sheriff’s department as well as allowing the board to be involved in hiring and promotion decisions made by APD.

The current ordinance prevents the board from being involved in individual administrative decisions over hiring, firing and promoting officers but allows for the board to make recommendations on overall policy.

Adrienne Buskard, a resident of Old Town, said that she was satisfied with the new ordinance and expected that it would lead to a better relationship between residents and the city.

“Alexandria Police Department appears to want to do its best to serve the community of Alexandria, and this goal should be facilitated if APD is able to get comments and feedback directly from the community. And likewise, the community will be better able to understand the APD if they can directly learn of issues faced by police,” Buskard said.

After the public comment period closed, Seifeldein motioned for a vote on the ordinance, seconded by Councilor Canek Aguirre with a friendly amendment to add language to the ordinance requiring that police provide periodic reports to the board about how they have implemented board recommendations. Council unanimously passed the ordinance, 7-0.

“I hope that the progress we made today begins to re-store our residents’ trust in law enforcement,” Seifeldein said in a statement.