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Alexandrians Want Civilian Police Oversight, Divided on Scope

As the city government works to iron out details of a proposed civilian review panel for the Alexandria Police Department, some local voices remain divided over how much power should be given to the oversight board.

The latest Agenda: Alexandria discussion, now converted to the On the Agenda podcast, tackled the local issue with Alexandria Gazette-Packet editor Mary Kimm — who was part of a similar initiative in Fairfax County — and David Baker — who retired as Alexandria’s police chief in 2009 after a DUI arrest. The discussion was moderated by journalist and longtime Agenda Alexandria host Michael Lee Pope and Agenda: Alexandria board member Alyia Gaskins.

Both Kimm and Baker expressed support for more civilian oversight, though varied in how they believed that should operate.

“I’m not, and never have been, against civilian oversight,” Baker said. “I think there’s advantages to allowing for more transparency and dialogue, and that builds relationships with the police. I suppose what I am concerned about is how quickly this unfolded.”

Baker said the idea behind the reforms, like body cameras and meaningful laws to prohibit militarization of police, are solid. But regarding the review panel, Baker said he was concerned for potential misuse of subpoena powers. Baker argued that subpoenas could be more intrusive into details, like Facebook messages from civilians, than some realize.

“Subpoena power could have a chilling effect on the community and the police department,” Baker said. “I’m fearful of it at the outset, but I’m not fearful of it as the system develops. It concerns me at the outset for those reasons.”

Kimm agreed that subpoenas should not be a blanket power awarded to the review panel, but said they could could still be part of a broader toolset that would help ensure effectiveness and avoid sidelining of the panel by the police department.

“The systemic racism that underpins the conflict between community and the police is real,” Kimm said. “If you don’t go forward by giving this civilian review panel real teeth, you’re going to erode the confidence civilians have in that. There should be a long discussion about parameters, who can be subpoenas and what should be revealed. It shouldn’t be a blanket subpoena power.”

The more thorny issue was whether or not the review panel should have authority to discipline or fire police officers. Baker argued disciplinary power should lie with the Chief of Police, though he should be required to report on what sort of disciplinary action was taken — if any. Kimm was more undecided on the review panel’s authority to discipline officers, but acknowledged that requiring reporting of discipline would be a positive step forward.

Kimm also noted that it’s likely that any new review panel would face some pushback from the department, as the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission faced in Fairfax when it was established in the wake of the shooting of John Geer.

“If you’ve been successful, no one should be happy with what you’ve developed,” Kimm said. “The police are not going to appreciate civilian review. Whatever limits there are to the power of the civilian panel will make activists upset. But there is a place in-between where people have enough say where it can be successful. It will start off with huge bumps no matter what you do, so buckle your seatbelts.”

City spokesman Craig Fifer said the review panel is scheduled to return to the City Council for discussion in January.

Staff photo by James Cullum

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