Opinion: My Questions About the Montgomery Police Chief Nominee

Opinion: My Questions About the Montgomery Police Chief Nominee

Here are a few questions the council should consider asking Tonya Chapman and the executive branch.

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Editor’s note: The views expressed in MoCo Politics are the writer’s and do not represent the staff of Bethesda Beat.

County Executive Marc Elrich has settled on former Portsmouth City Police Chief Tonya Chapman as his choice to lead MoCo’s police department. The County Council, which is responsible for confirming or rejecting the nomination, is preparing questions for Chapman. Here are a few questions the council should consider asking the nominee and the executive branch.

Questions for the Nominee

  1. In May 2016, Portsmouth police officers were accused of deleting a cellphone video of them beating a suspect. A video that was not deleted shows an officer threatening to evict a bystander and another officer yelling, “Get the f— back to your apartment, go!” When speaking with the press, Chapman refused to name the officers involved and said they remained on duty. But she also said she would launch an investigation. What were the findings of the investigation? Were they made public?
  1. In October 2017, a Portsmouth police officer shot a fleeing suspect in the back. The officer claimed that the suspect waved a gun, but other officers found a gun inside the bottom of the suspect’s right pant leg. Chapman gave the officer a medal of valor, but prosecutors charged him with two felonies, including aggravated malicious wounding and a firearms charge. Chapman later said she intends to testify on behalf of the officer at his trial. Does Chapman still believe the medal was warranted and does she still plan on testifying for the officer?
  1. In May 2018, Chapman sent the email below to her officers, prompting some of them to complain to local media. Does she have any regrets about this email and does she plan on communicating in this fashion with Montgomery County police officers?

Tonya Chapman email

  1. Chapman says she was fired from her position in Portsmouth because of “systemic racism.” What does Chapman think of the statement by her successor, current Portsmouth Police Chief Angela Greene, that she did not experience “any extreme racism” in the department? Greene said after Chapman left, “In my experience here in almost three years, I do not see that. I do not have that perception. I do not see that as a problem here… I have not experienced any extreme racism … If there are any issues that I felt underlying, overt or covert. I would take corrective action. I would not stand for that.” Like Chapman, Greene is an African American woman who was hired by Portsmouth’s police department in 2016. The city manager who hired and fired Chapman and hired Greene, Lydia Pettis-Patton, is also an African American woman. Video of Greene’s statement can be seen here.
  1. Chapman appears to have spent most, if not all, of her career in Virginia, which forbids collective bargaining for public employees. Does Chapman have any experience in leading a police department with a collective bargaining agreement? MoCo’s police union is not only known for aggressively defending its rights; it has also sued the county and petitioned legislation to the ballot in the past. Labor relations could be an issue seeing as how Chapman accused the Portsmouth police union of plotting to oust her before she was fired.

Questions for the Executive Branch

  1. When The Washington Post first broke the story of Chapman’s candidacy on July 11 and named her the “front-runner,” who were the anonymous sources speaking to the paper? Were they employees of the executive branch? If so, was this a sanctioned leak by executive leadership? And if that is so, why not just go on the record rather than announcing a nomination through a leak? This is especially critical if any council members found out about the nomination through the press and not from the executive branch directly.
  1. Bethesda Beat reported that there were “about 20 candidates” in the running for the police chief job. Who were they? And were any of them other than Chapman forced out of their last job?
  1. Elrich told Bethesda Beat that he “wasn’t aware of the shooting incident and the medal of valor.” I found out through Google. In the wake of the botched nomination of Vennard Wright to lead the Department of Technology Services, who is in charge of vetting the administration’s nominees?
  1. Elrich also told Bethesda Beat, “They [The Portsmouth Police Department] said they separated from her because of leadership issues, not because of the job she does.” What on planet Earth does that mean? The entire job of police chief is to lead. What other job of police chief is there?

WJLA has reported skepticism by the council of Chapman’s nomination. Given questions of her past performance and the way the Elrich administration rolled her out, they are wise to be skeptical. Police chief is one of the most important positions in county government. While some executive branch nominees have withdrawn from consideration in the past (including Wright), I have never heard of the council outright voting down a formally submitted nomination to lead a department from the executive.

And here’s another thing: with someone like Chapman – who has earned substantial controversial coverage from the Hampton Roads media – the key question is whether something that has not yet been reported will come out. If that happens, few Council Members will fall on their swords for Elrich and an out-of-town nominee.

Let the questions be asked and answered.

Adam Pagnucco is a writer, researcher and consultant who is a former chief of staff at the County Council. He has worked in the labor movement and has had clients in labor, business and politics.

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