Residents overwhelmingly support Prince William police, years of studies show

For years, Prince William County residents have praised their police department.

Citizen satisfaction surveys dating back to 2007, when the county initiated its controversial immigration policy that initially required officers to check the legal immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the U.S. illegally, show the department received high marks from ethnicities across the board, including Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, and Whites.

Most recently, in 2018, a survey of 1,600 people, conducted by Virginia Beach-based Issues & Answers, largely by phone, found the overall satisfaction rating of the police department “basically unchanged” from 2016. That’s when a similar survey of 1,500 randomly sampled residents, conducted by ORC International, another private firm hired to conduct the bi-annual citizen satisfaction survey in 2o12, showed 94% of residents were satisfied with the performance of the police department.

Since 1993, the surveys have regularly asked residents if they think officers are courteous and helpful to all community members regardless of race or gender, if police promptly respond to calls for help, if they have positive attitudes, and if the department is doing enough to teach its residents techniques on preventing crime.

In 2014, 1,800 residents responded to the survey, and the police department scored an overall 93% satisfaction rating. It was the same rating in 2012 when 1,727 surveys were completed.

Immigration policy

In 2007, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors directed its police department to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. The policy was championed by former At-large Board Chairman Corey Stewart, who received national press attention, as the policy was the first of its kind in the U.S. It sparked outrage among Hispanics who showed up to Board meetings who said they felt unfairly targeted by this new mandate.

Four months into enforcing the new policy, the Board changed its position and required illegal immigration checks only on people who had been arrested and charged with a crime.

That same year, the police department scored an 88% overall satisfaction rating on the citizen survey, which, at that time, was conducted by the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia. A total of 1,287 were surveyed at random between May and July of 2007.

A year later, in 2008, UVA researchers found that 22% of survey respondents provided positive comments on the department’s handling of the immigration policy, and only 17% of those surveyed stressed they didn’t like illegal immigration for its “disadvantageous aspects.” 

Just 0.2% of residents speaking negatively of the policy, according to the survey.

In 2009, eight of 10 respondents said they were happy with the revised immigration policy. And overall satisfaction with the police increased significantly from 89.0 percent in 2008 to 92.5 percent in 2009. It has remained above 90% ever since.

Also increasing significantly were satisfaction with the police’s implementation of the immigration policy (80.5% in 2008 to 85.0% in 2009) and satisfaction with the police department’s fair treatment of residents (74.3% in 2008 to 78.8% in 2009).

Gains in satisfaction were particularly strong among Hispanics and non-Hispanic Blacks. In 2009, 85.5 percent of Hispanics and 93.6 percent of Blacks expressed satisfaction with overall police performance, compared to 72.8 percent of Hispanics and 85.1 percent of Blacks in 2008.

But in 2010, that all changed when public approval for the immigration policy took a nosedive, falling to 34%. The change was blamed on increasing media attention to the new law passed in Arizona that year, which, as Prince William had done three years earlier, required officers to check the immigration status of anyone suspected to be in the U.S. illegally.

Also that same year, the data show that White and non-Hispanic respondents are significantly more likely to have been satisfied with police attitudes and behaviors toward residents compared to Black and Hispanic residents, respectively. Hispanic were less likely to be satisfied than Whites (85.0%), Asians (81.8%) and Blacks (73.1%) when it came to rating the fairness with which the police department treats all residents, with Whites being significantly more satisfied than Blacks and residents of other races.

Hispanic residents (54.8%) were significantly less likely to be satisfied with the fairness of treatment compared to non-Hispanics (84.2%), and their level of satisfaction has remained unchanged from 2009, when 54.0 percent of Hispanic residents expressed satisfaction with the way the police department treats residents regardless of race, gender, ethnic or national origin.

The illegal immigration enforcement question was not included in the most recent 2018 survey. In June, the Prince William County Jail Board ended its longstanding agreement with federal immigration and customs enforcement officials, called 287(g), where a team of jail officers was specially trained to identify inmates who were suspected illegal aliens.

Calls to defund police

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, December 1, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors will take up a measure from Gainesville Supervisor Peter Candland that calls for removing all language referring to defunding or shifting funds away from the county police department in the upcoming strategic plan. The Board meets at the county government center, at 1 County Complex in Woodbridge.

Candland’s resolution will require a majority vote on the Board of County Supervisors to pass and comes after months of public testimony at their meetings, from Black Lives Matter supporters, who regularly call for defunding and abolishing the agency, including unfounded claims that county police “terrorize” minorities in the community.

In October, the Board of County Supervisors created a new Racial and Social Justice Commission and its Human Rights Commission that’s been in place since 1992, which will spend the next year reviewing the hiring practices and use-of-force policy in the police department. It comes after Virginia State Police on May 30 used tear gas during the first protest to have occurred in the county since the county’s police department’s creation in 1970.

Woodbridge District Supervisor Angela Franklin, who was elected to serve one year ago, voiced her displeasure with the police after the tear gas incident. She spearheaded the creation of the new commission.

Republicans on the Board of County Supervisors didn’t support its creation and asked County Attorney Michele Robl of any reported instances of reported discrimination by its police officers. She couldn’t cite one.

“By all fair and objective measures, [Prince William County Police Department] is a model. I challenge any fair-minded person to compare the department’s record of fair, lawful, and reasonable service with that of any other police department,” penned Retired Prince William police Chief Charlie T. Deane, who led the department from 1974 to 2012 and remains one of the longest-serving police chiefs in the U.S. “Those who wish to criticize should consider the department’s performance as measured by crime rates, crime clearance rates, lawsuits, citizen complaints, use-of-force policies and outcomes, and—most importantly—citizen satisfaction.”

State police and various other agencies were called to assist Prince William police after a riot broke out that night at the intersection of Sudley Road and Sudley Manor Drive. Four police officers were injured in the melee, and five people were arrested.

“We have one of the finest police forces in the country that has made extraordinary efforts in keeping our community safe,” said Candland. “I want the Board to reaffirm the commitment we have made in supporting our police officers and ensure that adequate resources, for their work, are included in our next strategic plan.”

Prince William County defines its strategic plan and its development process.

The Strategic Plan reflects the community’s vision and desired outcomes. It is an important aspect of Prince William County government’s management approach and provides key policy guidance for service delivery and resource allocation decisions.

The County’s first Strategic Plan was adopted in October 1992 and guided the County from 1992-1995. That first plan, and each subsequent plan, covered a four-year period tied to the BOCS’ term of office.

The [Board of County Supervisors] adopted the 2017–2020 Strategic Plan on Tuesday, January 24, 2017. The adopted strategic goal areas include Robust Economy, Mobility, Wellbeing, Safe & Secure Community, and Quality Education & Workforce Development.

A team of county residents, appointed by each of the eight sitting members of the Board of County Supervisors, and members of the county government staff, have been meeting since June to discuss the 2021-2024 Strategic Plan. The Board of County Supervisors is expected to review and approve the new plan in December.

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