Prince William County’s Racial and Social Justice Commission is seeking a wide swath of data, although local officials have cautioned it might not be representative of the situation on the ground.
Meanwhile, the commission’s most recent meeting featured tense moments, disagreements and arguments between members as the panel is establishing its structure.
The commission held its first working meeting on Thursday, with presentations from the police department, county executive, Human Rights Commission and school division.
The panel, approved by the Board of Supervisors in October, is tasked with delivering a report that examines “the state of racial and social justice for people of color” in the county and making recommendations to the county government. Its initial focus is on policing, the “provision of government services” and public education.
Thursday’s meeting started off tense after Chair Shantell Rock requested to add an item to the agenda that would set procedures for discussion on motions, limiting commissioners to two sets of three-minute comments.
Gainesville Commissioner Erica Tredinnick and Coles Commissioner Charles Haddow said they did not see the proposal beforehand and didn’t think it was appropriate to add to the agenda on the spot. Human Rights Commission Executive Director Raul Torres said Robert’s Rules of Order didn’t allow discussion on such a motion, but Haddow disagreed.
After a lengthy discussion, a motion to add the rules to the agenda was passed.
Immediately afterward, Rock asked commissioners and attendees to read an equity pledge that was projected on the screen in the board chambers. Haddow again objected, saying it hadn’t been circulated, he hadn’t reviewed it and such action was performative. Tredinnick also said she hadn’t received the document.
“I don’t know what this pledge is. I’m sure it’s well-intentioned,” Haddow said. “I didn’t come here to do the exercise that’s team-building instead of examining the issues and disparities.”
Rock opted to read the pledge on her own, saying the commission could all recite it at the next meeting.
The longest discussion came around Police Chief Peter Newsham’s presentation.
Newsham provided demographic data about the police force showing that of its 663 sworn officers, 75.34% are white, 11.28% are Hispanic and 8.7% are Black.
In comparison, the latest population estimates for the county put its population at 42.9% white, 23.5% Hispanic and 20.3% Black.
“Our police department is not as diverse as it should be,” Newsham said. “Our diversity should reflect the people we serve.”
Diversity in the school division and county government wasn’t much different.
School Board member Loree Williams, who serves on the commission, said 29.5% of its certified staff were minorities. County Executive Chris Martino said of Prince William’s 4,725 full-time employees, 62.3% are white, 19.6% are Black and 10.7% are Hispanic.
Deputy Police Chief Jarad Phelps said the department is doing outreach to communities of color, but there’s only so much they can do.
“We could spend five hours talking to someone at a recruiting event, they have to submit that application,” he said.
Phelps said the department received 2,182 applications in fiscal 2020, hiring 10% of them. As part of the department’s hiring process, applicants who could potentially be hired are sent a form to provide their personal history.
Although Phelps didn’t have raw data on demographics from the applications or how many were sent the form, he had data on response rates among those sent the form.
Of all white people who were sent a form, 42% returned it. For Hispanic people, 43% returned it, 29% of Black people responded and 39% of all other races returned the form.
Haddow asked if the department feels it has a systemic race problem. Phelps said the county receives less than 10 complaints a year related to race and, based on its own internal affairs investigations, none have ever been founded.
“I wouldn’t say we have a problem, but we are always looking to improve,” he said.
Newsham, however, cautioned that the department’s data likely is not a full picture. He said many people of color may mistrust the police and be unwilling to ever file a complaint in the first place.
The commission requested additional information about complaints against the police department related to race and from the school division about passing rates, suspensions and disorderly conduct referrals.
The end of the meeting was testy as well when the commission discussed committee assignments. Haddow and Tredinnick wanted to swap their assignments, but said Rock would not let them.
Haddow was incensed that Rock had circulated a form for all commissioners to list their preference for committees. He said he received his third choice and Tredinnick said she received her second.
Haddow said Rock was just pushing through committee assignments in whatever way she wanted and At-Large Commissioner Jahanzeb Akbar said the bylaws give the chair power to assign members to committees.
Haddow told Rock she could “slap lipstick on this pig all you want,” but the committee assignment process was a “sham.”
One of the commissioners made a motion to end the discussion and it received a second. Akbar, who is vice chair, started taking a roll-call vote over Haddow’s loud objections and attempts to speak before stopping.
The commission calmed down as Potomac Commissioner Oliver Allen, who was selected as parliamentarian, said the disagreements on display Thursday could undermine the commission’s work and erode public trust.
“If we’re going to have any type of success, we’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to operate. Period,” he said. “You can stymie this business with irrelevant things.”
In closing remarks, Haddow said Prince William County appears to be free of overwhelmingly systemic issues, pointing out that “We’re not Minneapolis.”
Brentsville Commissioner London Steverson started his remarks saying he was appalled the meeting didn’t start with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, which he called “un-American.” He pointed out his experiences with racism growing up and said he was ready for the board to work.
The commission next meets for a work session at 7 p.m. Monday.