Police review board moves forward, but questions about confidentiality remain

The city is gradually ironing out the details for what could become a police review board that reshapes some of the community engagement with local law enforcement.

The proposed Community Policing Review Board will be a “civilian body may receive, investigate and issue findings on complaints from civilians regarding conduct of law-enforcement officers and civilian employees of a law enforcement agency serving under local authority,” according to the city website.

There’s been a long public back and forth over how much power should be granted to this board and how much protection the police department should receive. At a nearly six hour community meeting last week, the City Council, city staff and police department hammered out some of the important minutia around how the board will operate.

One of the largest recurring questions remains how the Community Policing Review Board will handle confidentiality. The ordinance includes a clause that material considered confidential for Freedom of Information Act can be reviewed in closed session by the Board.

According to the draft ordinance:

If such documents contain confidential information authorized to remain confidential pursuant to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, the information may be reviewed in a closed session of the Board in order to maintain the confidentiality. If the documents requested are part of a criminal investigative file for an active criminal investigation which could be compromised by the revelation of the process, evidence, methods, scope, or other factors in such investigation, APD shall not be compelled to provide such documents until such time as the investigation is completed or a determination is made that the criminal investigation will no longer be compromised.

Staff noted at the meeting that an independent auditor could have access to sealed criminal investigation files, something Police Chief Michael Brown said could make cooperation with other agencies difficult.

“The issue is whether or not the independent auditor will maintain confidentiality of ongoing investigation,” Brown said. “This only applies to APD. If we have criminal investigation where we work with state police, they will have different policies and procedures and could end up not sharing that information because they don’t want to compromise an ongoing case.”

Councilman Mo Seifeldein noted that part of the purpose of hiring an independent auditor is to provide a level of security and impartiality that would keep them from sharing the documents.

More broadly, Councilwoman Del Pepper was concerned that public documents could be used to identify individuals, even if the names are obscured.

“There are no secrets around here,” Pepper said. “If people knew he was interviewing Mr. X or Ms. Y, they might put two and two together. Things are not secret here.”

The City Attorney noted that the reports would take steps to avoid including any personally identifiable information.

One other item in the ordinance that raised eyebrows was the requirement to include a board member who has past experience in law enforcement but is not a former member of the Alexandria Police Department or related to anyone who is.

“[We need] law enforcement member who didn’t serve in Alexandria and has been retired for at least three years,” Wilson said. “We’re looking for a purple unicorn here.”

The City Council moved to bring the Community Policing Review Board up for first reading at the City Council’s April 17 meeting.

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