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Looking back at the past ten years of change with Chief A.J. – The first two years…2012-2014

By AJ Panebianco


In 2011, the town was searching for a new chief. I had made an application but was working as the chief for the town of Louisa. Although there were no real plans to leave Louisa, there was a draw to explore Middleburg. So, I applied. As fate would have it…the day Middleburg called Louisa for a reference happened to be a council night. During that meeting, Louisa went into a closed session, and I was offered a contract to stay. I accepted and withdrew from the process in Middleburg.  

One may ask, if you pulled out of the process, how did you end up as chief? A few months later, in 2012, another advertisement popped up for the Chief in Middleburg. I don’t even recall where or why I saw it. Perhaps it was divine intervention. I was quite happy in Louisa. Despite that, I felt compelled to explore Middleburg. To that end, my wife and I made a day trip to Middleburg. Like many, we fell in love immediately. I almost regretted going. Why? I knew there would be a great deal of competition for the job, and now I REALLY wanted it. This was compounded by the fact that I was not from the NoVA region. I felt there would be little chance of landing the job. However, I knew I needed to try.  

Many may say, and they would be right, I am not a typical police chief. I firmly believed my job was to make the community safe and not make the town money through heavy enforcement. Imagine how thrilled I was as I said that in the interview, and members of the Council shook their heads in agreement. Next, I spoke about my belief that the police department must be deeply involved in the community. To the point that the officers are known by their first names. Again, it seemed that the Council agreed. For the first time, I felt I might have a chance. As fate would have it, I was offered the job and eagerly accepted it.   

A good police officer investigates. I knew of the controversy surrounding a former chief, and that was followed by the short-lived tenure of then Chief Bill Klugh. Essentially making me the third chief in a year. In fact, one of the first articles written in the Eccentric, by the late Dan Marrow, referenced that. I recall Dan asking me… “How do we know they, the council got it right?”  as he said, “you know you’ll be the third chief in a year.” Therefore, I understood the assignment. The town and department needed stability in policing, so I started by saying I have committed to being here for at least five years.    

Introductions: Meeting the staff for the first time as a group and then individually is crucial. Getting to know them and setting goals will help to develop an atmosphere of teamwork. While explaining my philosophy of community-oriented policing and accountability, it was apparent that they were chomping at the bit to do just that. The officers bought into what would become our unofficial motto. “We don’t have to police our community, because we are the police FOR our community .”In other words, “when we build trust with the community, the community will see us as part of it and not a thumb pressing on it.” This set the tone for the years to follow.    

Accountability…each officer not only takes an oath for the authority granted by the Commonwealth but in Middleburg, they were and are still required to take the “Oath of Honor .”In my humble opinion, this is the most important oath. It is not about power or authority… it’s about accountability. The oath: “On my honor, I will never betray my integrity, my character, or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions. I will always maintain the highest ethical standards and uphold the values of my community, and the agency I serve.” There are a few keywords that deserve to be highlighted. HONOR giving one’s word as a bond, INTEGRITY a firm adherence to principles, CHARACTER qualities and standards of conduct, PUBLIC TRUST a duty imposed in faith, ACCOUNTABILITY being responsible for our actions, and finally…COMMUNITY the citizens we serve. I know that Dan Marrow believed this was the best thing this department did. I must agree with him.  

Putting miles on shoes. All staff are required to walk a beat every day. Police vehicles are necessary; however, they can be a physical barrier. We believe foot patrols remove that barrier. As a result, we saw the officers become part of the community. Officers introduce themselves by their first names. We talk with people and not at them. We made policing personal. Successes followed, and pride was back in the department. The officers felt like they were becoming part of Middleburg. The effect on morale and the community could be felt. We were redefining our policing model.     

Sounds like a dream job. Well, not everything went smoothly. There was still policing to be done. Some will recall the thefts of irreplaceable silver cups and trophies that plagued the area. It’s important to note that our very own Mike Prince, second in command at the time, played a key role in solving those. His work validated the efforts we have been moving towards. Being a professional full-service police department. Our peers in law enforcement saw the change, and for the first time in years, the department was earning respect…not only in Middleburg but in the region.    

During those first two years, we worked to change the atmosphere of policing in Middleburg. Those efforts included moving from a part-time police department to a full-service, 24/7/365 professional police department. Landmark events that came and went, National Night Out, the opening of the Salamander Resort, and the first film festival. All in all, there could not have been a better first two years.   More to come in the next issue.   

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