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County's Racial and Social Justice Commission's draft report focuses on diversifying police force, reforming SRO rules

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Prince William County's Racial and Social Justice Commission

Prince William County's new Racial and Social Justice Commission met in the board of county supervisors' chamber for the first time on Thursday, March 18.

After nearly a year of meetings, many of which have been contentious, Prince William County’s newly formed Racial and Social Justice Commission has released a first draft of its report, which includes dozens of recommendations for improving racial justice in Prince William County.

The recommendations, released for the first time Thursday, Nov. 18, outline key areas in which commissioners believe the county can improve services to all residents – regardless of their race or ethnicity – by updating policies and practices of the county government, policing and local schools. 

They commission is scheduled to finalize its recommendations in the coming weeks before sending them to the board of county supervisors, which will have the final say over whether they are incorporated into county policies.  

The recommendations, if adopted, will ask the county to implement measures aimed at diversifying the county government and police department’s staff, further examining the role of school resource officers in county schools and funding independent studies of the police department’s use-of-force and traffic stop practices, among other things. 

Some of the suggestions are already being addressed because of initiatives taken by the county government, police department and school division independent of the commission. 

The recommendations were primarily informed by local data provided by county and state agencies, listening sessions with local advocacy groups and input from the commission’s “ex-officio” members, who include Police Chief Peter Newsham, County Executive Chris Martino, county Human Rights Chair Curtis Porter and School Board member Loree Williams (Woodbridge) during numerous meetings this year. 

Commissioners largely appeared to be in agreement about the direction of the drafts with the exception of those for county schools, which were the subject of tense debate. Some commissioners expressed concerns about whether enough local data had been collected to justify the policy suggestions.

Some commissioners also debated language included in the policing recommendations that blamed higher rates of police officer retirement and resignations on “social justice challenges.” 

The discussion reflected existing tensions and philosophical differences between commissioners appointed by the Democratic and Republican supervisors. In the months since the commission began its work, Democratic appointees have sought to identify areas where county services could be more equitable, while Republican appointees have seemed more focused on determining whether any inequities currently exist.

Commission: Police need to study use-of-force, revise SRO memorandum

Significant recommendations are being made in the area of policing, with input from the police chief. 

Commissioners are recommending the board of county supervisors hire an independent contractor to examine the police department’s use-of-force practices, fund an independent study to review police vehicle searches and revise the department’s memorandum of understanding with the school division regarding school resource officers. 

Those recommendations are in response to two recent reports that showed police officers in Prince William County were more likely to conduct vehicle searches and use force against Black residents than those of other racial and ethnic groups.

Commissioners are also recommending a new, more detailed MOU between Prince William County schools and the police department that “outlin[es] clear duties and responsibilities of the SROs regarding the handling of minor offenses that occur in school, on school grounds and in school buses ... that should be enforced equally in every school to allow for organizational coherence.”

In September, Newsham announced that the new MOU is already in the process of being revised. 

During several listening sessions hosted by the commission, community groups like the Prince William NAACP and CASA de Virginia raised concerns about disproportionate police encounters with African American students in school, the school-to-prison pipeline and students being arrested. 

The subcommittee report cites the high number of African American students who had been either charged or cited for disorderly conduct in county schools in Prince William County in recent years. 

In 2019, a Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice report found that between 2016 and 2018, Prince William County had the highest number of school-based disorderly conduct charges of any school division in the commonwealth. African American students accounted for 63% of those charges despite accounting for only 20% of the student body.

Commissioners noted the issue had largely been addressed by a new state law that took effect in 2020 that prohibits the arrest of students for disorderly conduct during school, on school buses or at school sponsored events.

Lack of diversity in county, police workforce

Commissioners are also aiming to tackle a lack of diversity within the county government and the police department’s workforce. 

Prince William County is a majority non-white county. It is also the most diverse county in Virginia, and the 10th most diverse county in the United States, according to newly released U.S. Census data. But the county’s police force is 75% white.

To address the issue, the commission put forth recommendations to recruit new officers from “diverse locations,” such as historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions and military installations, and to ensure salaries are competitive with other agencies in the region. 

They also recommended opening up executive and leadership positions to external candidates rather than hiring those positions from within the police department, which is the current practice. 

Newsham said during the meeting that the department’s practice of hiring senior-level positions from within the department has made it “extremely difficult” to hire non-white people to those positions because the force is disproportionately white. 

The commission’s subcommittee on policing also addressed what they said was “higher than usual” attrition by way of retirements and resignations in the county police force in 2020 and 2021. Their draft attributed the cause of high turnover to “social justice challenges” such as “defund the police, lenient sentences for convicted Capitol insurrectionists who assaulted police officers [and] COVID-19 vaccine mandates,” claims they said are supported by Prince William County police human resources data.

Commissioners argued about the language and appeared to lean toward removing the purported causes of the turnover altogether.

Most outspoken about the issue was Commissioner London Steverson, appointed by Supervisor Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville. Steverson said he could not vote in favor of the commission’s final report unless they removed the sentence stating that there had been “lenient sentences for convicted Capital insurrectionists.” 

Steverson insisted the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which resulted in five deaths and more than 600 federal criminal cases, was “a hoax.” 

“The January 6 events were more of a hoax than an insurrection. An insurrection is a violent uprising against a government or other established authority,” Steverson said. “... The January 6 events were more of a hoax. It was a spectacle that lasted only a few hours. It caused only minimal damage.” 

The commission is also recommending the county government make efforts to hire more veterans, persons with disabilities and Hispanic people, all of whom are underrepresented in the county government’s workforce. 

School policy recommendations criticized for lacking local  data

The commission’s education subcommittee, which includes Williams, at-large Commissioner J.B. Akbar and Coles Commissioner Mac Haddow, submitted a report with more than 30 recommendations. But the report did not garner any support from Haddow over his concerns that committee’s report lacked important local data needed to justify their recommendations. 

Haddow was appointed to the commission by Supervisor Yesli Vega, R-Coles.

Those concerns were also shared by Commission Chair Shantell Rock, who was appointed by Supervisor Margaret Franklin, D-Woodbridge. Rock said twice she believed the subcommittee had not been successful in obtaining data from the county school division. Even amid those concerns, Rock said she believes the draft was “ready for the board of county supervisors.”

The recommendations would require the school division to implement dozens of new policies and conduct evaluations on a broad array of issues including school resource officers, school discipline and “equity scorecards.” But unlike the drafts submitted by the county government and policing subcommittees, the education recommendations  include very little local data to support the new policies’ implementation. 

The draft recommendations cite dozens of “sources” derived from analysis and some national news reports but no local data, according to the draft document.

Akbar, who chairs the education subcommittee, is a teacher at Freedom High School. He said during the meeting he didn’t believe obtaining data from the school division related to school resource officers and school discipline is necessary for the report.  

The Racial and Social Justice Commission will meet again on Thursday, Dec. 16 to finalize its recommendations. At a later, unspecified date, those recommendations will head to the board of county supervisors for a public hearing and a final vote. 

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misidentified Commission Chair Shantell Rock as being appointed by Supervisor Peter Candland, R-Gainesville. Rock was appointed by Supervisor Margaret Franklin, D-Woodbridge. The Times regrets the error.

Reach Daniel Berti at dberti@fauquier.com

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(1) comment

Harry

Prince William County Government Demographics (EEO-4/2020 Census)

PWC Government (EEO-4 Report) +$70,000 Employees EEO-4 Percentage 2020 Census Demographics PWC Delta

Hispanic/Latino 14 4.9% 24.5% -19.6%

White 201 71.0% 41.5% 29.5%

Black 37 13.1% 22.2% -9.1%

Asian 26 9.2% 9.4% -0.2%

Pacific Islanders 0 0.0% 0.2% -0.2%

Indigenous Americans 2 0.7% 1.1% -0.4%

Other 3 1.1% 1.1% 0.0%

Total 283 100.0% 100.0%

Prince William County Service Authority (EEO-4 Report)

PWC Servvice Authority Employees EEO-4 Percentage 2020 Census Demographics PWC Delta

Hispanic/Latino 6 1.8% 24.5% -22.7%

White 281 78.9% 41.5% 37.4%

Black 56 15.8% 22.2% -6.4%

Asian 6 1.8% 9.4% -7.6%

Pacific Islanders 0 0.0% 0.2% -0.2%

Indigenous Americans 0 0.0% 1.1% -1.1%

Other 6 1.8% 1.1% 0.7%

Total 355 100% 100.0%

Prince William County Police Department Sworn Officers Percentage 2020 Census Demographics PWC Delta

Hispanic/Latino 76 11.4% 24.5% -13.1%

White 500 75.2% 41.5% 33.7%

Black 59 8.9% 22.2% -13.3%

Asian 20 3.0% 9.4% -6.4%

Pacific Islanders 0 0.0% 0.2% -0.2%

Indigenous Americans 3 0.5% 1.1% -0.6%

Other 7 1.1% 1.1% 0.0%

Total 665 100.0% 100.0%

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