15 Sep 2014
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No Transparency in Sheriff’s Personnel Actions

Sheriff’s Office declines to provide a reason why ten deputies were not reappointed.

No Transparency in Sheriff’s Personnel Actions

Ten Loudoun County sheriff’s deputies lost their jobs when Mike Chapmen took over as sheriff at the beginning of the year. Why? We don’t know, because the Sheriff’s Office won’t say.

In Virginia, sheriffs have broad authority to appoint and remove deputies for just about any reason. About the only restriction on their authority is that they may not discriminate with respect to the individual’s race, religion, sex or national origin.

A press release announcing Chapman’s new “executive leadership team” mentioned that the Sheriff’s Office included 547 sworn deputies and 150 civilian personnel. It didn’t mention that the sheriff chose not to reappoint ten deputies, thereby ending their employment with Loudoun County.

I asked Liz Mills, Chapman’s new director of media relations and communication, if she would confirm media reports that a number of deputies had been let go. She replied that no one was let go, but that ten had not been reappointed.

She said that Chapman would not explain that decision because, “as a policy, we do not discuss personnel matters.” Nor would she provide the former deputies’ names, ranks, or their number of years of service with Loudoun County.

Ten deputies out of more than 500 may not seem like a big deal – except to those who lost their jobs, and to members of their families. I am confident that it is a very big deal to them, and that they see absolutely no distinction between being let go and not being reappointed. In fact, I am quite sure it feels exactly like being fired.

I’m not suggesting that Chapman did anything improper under Virginia law. But I do think there is something wrong with a system that allows the sheriff to end the career of any law enforcement officer just because he feels like it. It seems like a shabby way to treat ten deputies who, at some time in their careers, repeatedly put their lives on the line to serve and protect the citizens of Loudoun County.

To make it worse, the deputies who lost their jobs are being collectively smeared in public comments on websites such as that of the , which named one of the officers who was let go in a news story on this issue.

I don’t usually read comments on most news websites because those who post them rarely use their real names, and often hide behind their anonymity to make personal attacks. But I made an exception in this case because I wanted to learn more about who was let go and why.

As I write this, there are 76 comments posted in response to a Times-Mirror story about the changes in the Sheriff’s Office. Those who lost their jobs are referred to in the comments as corrupt, jerks, dead beats, knuckleheads, cronies, and a few other words that are too vulgar to repeat here. To be sure, they are also defended in other comments that are critical of Chapman.

We have no way of knowing if the former deputies were incompetent or corrupt. But in the absence of an official explanation, this smells more like political payback.

Maybe they were too close to Chapman’s predecessor, Steve Simpson, whom Chapman defeated last November. Maybe they were good at their jobs, rose through the ranks to positions of authority, and were let go simply because they suffered from guilt by association with Simpson. Maybe they were loyal, and supported their former boss, and are now paying the price for that.

We don’t know the reasons, because the Sheriff’s Office won’t give any.

As one of its first actions upon taking office, the appointed a government reform commission. One of its charges is to “examine ways for the government to be more transparent, user friendly, and accountable to the citizens.”

This is certainly an area where the government can be more transparent and accountable.

When Simpson was sheriff, Board chairman Scott York expressed interest in replacing most of the functions of the Sheriff’s Office with a police force that would come under the authority of the . This would make the organizational structure more like that of the , which has a police chief who reports to the Town Manager.

The reform commission should ask why a large law enforcement operation like the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office needs to have an elected sheriff who has the authority to terminate the employment of deputies for just about any reason, including political ones. This isn’t Mayberry, where the sheriff has one full-time deputy and, on special occasions, temporarily deputizes the town barber and gas station attendant.

Leesburg’s system appears to be working very well. Police Chief Joseph Price is highly respected. But even he might lose an election in any given election year if his political party had fallen out of favor. And it would be unfair if his best officers were fired by his successor just because they were associated with the losing candidate.

The Government Reform Commission should take a close look at this issue, and the Board should seriously consider the merits of a police department.

I would like to feel confident that the performance of our law enforcement officers is assessed according to their merit – that those whose performance is substandard will be held accountable, and that those who are doing their jobs well will also be treated fairly.

I don’t have that confidence in the Sheriff’s Office under the current system.

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