Prince William County officials are investigating a claim by the head of the local NAACP that a senior police official used a racial slur to refer to the organization’s leader several years ago.
The county’s Racial and Social Justice Commission confirmed during its meeting Thursday that the county is examining the allegation made last month by the Rev. Cozy Bailey.
Police Chief Peter Newsham said the investigation is being handled independently of the agency by the county’s human resources department. He was uncertain how long it would take the county to complete.
Bailey’s accusation came during the May 24 meeting of the commission’s policing subcommittee. The statement came in response to a question by London Steverson, who represents the Brentsville District on the commission, about systemic racism related to policing.
Bailey responded with an anecdote about being invited by then-Police Chief Barry Barnard to address a leadership seminar. He said the invitation occurred while he was NAACP president and when the Citizens Advisory Board was created, but also said it was five or six years ago. He was appointed president of the NAACP in 2017, the same year the advisory board was created.
Bailey said he entered a room with about 40 people and officers were chatting, but, “All that chatter ceased when the chief introduced me as the president of the NAACP.”
Bailey said his presentation about the work of the advisory board and the NAACP to maintain and create positive relationships with the police department received a “cold reception” with virtually no questions.
“And as I walked out – even though the chief invited me to stay, it was too cold in there for me – what I heard was, ‘Glad that n-word is done,’” Bailey said. “Now, I had the temerity to continue to walk because I did not want to disturb what was going on. But that told me at that time what the culture was of the highest levels of leadership within the police department. I call that systemic racism.”
The topic was brought before the full commission Thursday by Charles Haddow of the Coles District, who is not a member of the policing subcommittee but said he listened to the subcommittee's meeting. He made a motion to encourage the Board of County Supervisors to open an investigation into the allegation.
“There can be no excuse for the police department and 40 law enforcement professionals to stand by as that event happened as described by Rev. Bailey,” Haddow said.
Newsham then informed Haddow that he had asked County Executive Chris Martino to independently investigate the allegation. Newsham said Martino agreed, and the human resources department was selected to lead.
“I think we would all agree that it’s something that we don’t want to tolerate from anyone in our police department,” Newsham added.
Haddow and another commission member, Erica Tredinnick of the Gainesville District, questioned why Bailey did not discuss the allegation when he came to a full meeting of the commission earlier last month.
“If someone said that to me, I would remember it and it would be something I would be able to say right here,” Tredinnick said. “If there’s 40 people in a room and that word is uttered, I can’t imagine that those people wouldn’t say anything.”
Commission member Christopher Frederick of the Neabsco District, a former police officer, responded with an anecdote of his own. He said as a young officer, he heard a supervisor use the same racial slur and was shocked. He took the information to a superior, who said it might not be worth a fight for a young officer to take on a superior, so Frederick never officially reported the incident.
“It is what it is. I didn’t say anything,” Frederick said. “To say that these things don’t happen, I can tell you 100% that is not accurate.”
Frederick said he invited Bailey to return and discuss the allegation with the full commission, but Bailey declined and said he had answered questions at two meetings. Frederick said Bailey indicated he would cooperate with any investigation into the allegation.
Several commissioners indicated they were aware that an investigation had already been initiated, but Haddow said that information wasn’t sent to the full commission and he was incensed.
“There is no excuse why some members of this commission would know about the existence of an independent investigation into this and not the rest of us,” he said.
Haddow’s comments then turned toward Newsham, but he was cut off by Chair Shantell Rock. The three spent about a minute trying to speak at the same time before Rock prevailed, saying Haddow should not attack Newsham. Newsham later said he was not offended by Haddow’s comments.
Frederick said “by no means was anyone trying to keep it a secret.” Haddow later withdrew his motion after several commissioners said they wouldn’t support it because an investigation was underway.
Newsham said his department has a “no-tolerance policy” for the behavior Bailey mentioned. He said he would not “pre-judge whether it did or didn’t occur,” but said it’s important to find out the facts.
“We don’t want that cloud hanging over us as command officials at the Prince William County Police Department,” he said. “Sometimes an allegation like that alone sticks. It sticks whether it’s true or untrue, and that’s very hurtful to the folks who do this job every single day and they do it in a very unbiased, constitutional and professional way. So that sticking is going to remain, regardless of the outcome of this investigation.”