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Middleburg Police Chief A.J. Panebianco: By Leonard Shapiro For Middleburg Life

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July 2015

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Middleburg.” Panebianco has become one of the more widely-respected law officers in the state, serving on the board of directors of the Virginia Chiefs Association as well as several of its sub-committees. And he believes that his department, one of the smallest in the Northern Virginia region, also is building a solid reputation as a highly-effective unit. He’s clearly made a significant impact in Middleburg. On his watch, the town is now being patrolled 24/7. He wants motorists to know that multiple officers are on duty during daylight hours, one reason he believes the vehicle accident rate has dropped 44 percent since he arrived. “I know when I see a police car, I slow down,” he said. “We have more (officers) working, so people do slow down when they see them.” He, too, has taken full advantage of social media. The department now has its own web site and Facebook page, the better to post anything of consequence to town residents, from upcoming events to security alerts to warnings about bad weather on the way. He and his officers also regularly show up at the Middleburg Charter Elementary School and The Hill School under his “Breaking Bread” initiative, first started when he was in Louisa. They sit down in the school cafeteria and have lunch with the children, discussing safety issues and answering a gazillion questions in between the tater tots. Sadly, Panebianco’s Middleburg tenure has also occurred with a backdrop of tragedy in his own personal life. This past November, his wife, Amy, died after a long and valiant battle with breast cancer that brings tears to his eyes when he talks about her and their 27-year marriage. Still, these days Middleburg’s chief of police has an upbeat, optimistic outlook on virtually anything he’s asked about, including his passion for poker. He watches it on television, plays with pals and occasionally enters area competitions. His ultimate goal: to some day participate in the World Series of Poker. And of course, he’d also like to think his future will include many more years as Middleburg’s popular top cop. “I’ll be here until they tell me they don’t want me,” Panebianco said. “I will not be looking at any other employment. I believe this is a perfect fit for me, and I hope I’m a perfect fit for Middleburg.” n

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hen he viewed the recent Facebook video showing a suburban Dallas policeman pulling his gun on a group of teenagers in bathing suits at a neighborhood pool party, Middleburg Chief of Police A.J. Panebianco immediately hit the share button. He wanted to make certain that every officer in his department would watch it, too. What happened in Texas last month is the sort of confrontational policing Panebianco wants to avoid at all costs in a Middleburg community he and his colleagues help protect. The affable 48-year-old chief prefers a far kinder, gentler approach, and is emphatically opposed to what he described in a recent interview as “warrior policing.” “My view for the majority of my career has been focused on community policing,” said Panebianco, who took the Middleburg job in May, 2012. “Sometimes the public views the police as ‘them.’ And sometimes, the police view the public as ‘them.’ I think we all need to put the ‘us’ into it. I believe we’re better as protectors and guardians of our community, and that’s always been my philosophy.” Panebianco and his department of five fulltime officers, two-part-timers and an administrative assistant are seemingly all on that same peaceful page. They also know they’re working in a different sort of town, where shoplifting and minor vehicular accidents are the main concerns, and major crime and other forms of mayhem are something that usually happens elsewhere. Still, Panebianco proudly pointed out, the work of Lt. Mike Prince, his second in command and the department’ chief investigator, went a long way two years ago toward apprehending silver thieves who had victimized a number of Loudoun and Fauquier residents. He’s bullish on the rest of his officers as well. There is Tim Tharpe, who the chief said “has a unique ability to talk to anyone he sees, friendly and so likable.” Heather Fadely, the only woman on the force, “has a great supervisory background…She’s very smart and has a calming effect. She can take something that might get out of conrol and reel it in real quick.” Jay Hollins instructs his colleagues in firearms, defensive tactics and the use of radar and “also does evidence or anything elseLast welotask him in small subdivision in to do.” The newest member of the team is Mark desired area of Putnam, whose first day on the job inThe 2013 coinPlains. Just

cided with a tragic double suicide in the village. just didn’t start. We’ve always focused on deHe kept his wits about him that stressful week- escalation and knowing when to stop.” end and Panebianco described him as “a great fit Panebianco has another standard he sets for for the community.” his Middleburg officers. “I can’t emphasize enough what a great “We try to treat everyone with the same group of people we have here,” he said. “This is respect we’d want our parents to be treated with,” a total team effort and we’ve gotten tremendous he said. “We want to treat people like family, and support from the mayor (Betsy Davis), Martha if you do that, you can also avoid a lot of the Semmes (town administrator) and the town problems that other places have…Now, somecouncil. The most effective tool we have in my times you do have to punish members of the mind is communication. If you use that, you family. If we have to write a ticket or make an don’t need to use much else.” arrest, we’ll do that. But we’ll do it with dignity.” His officers do carry firearms, tasers and Panebianco is a native of Covington, Virbatons, and by the fall, they also will be wear- ginia, where he grew up idolizing the father ing recently purchased of a boyhood body cameras, a trend friend, a policein policing across the man named country designed Kenny Lane. to protect both the “I liked how he public and his officers. carried himself, Panebianco also is how he handled constantly discussing himself,” he said. his do-no-harm phi“I wanted to be losophy with his staff, just like him. I sending them videos actually spoke at of Texas-like incidents his retirement. as reminders of “what He was my we don’t want,” he inspiration.” said. So, too, were Panebianco some of his still recalls the favorite police Rodney King incishows of the dent, when Los Ange1970s—Charles police badly beat lie’s Angels, T.J. and stomped on a Hooker and suspect in 1991. The S.W.A.T., among video of that scene others. After provoked a national earning a degree Photo by Leonard Shapiro uproar over out-ofin criminal jusPolice Chief A.J. Panebianco control law enforcetice at Bluefield ment. The pendulum College, Panebiswung the other way anco focused after 9/11, when countless police first respond- mainly on small town police work, serving on ers performed so heroically after terrorists flew the force in Buena Vista, Virginia, for 22 years airplanes into the World Trade Center and the before becoming chief in Louisa, then moving Pentagon. And cell phone videos of recent exces- to Middleburg three years ago. He also was an sive force incidents in Cleveland, New York, instructor for 15 years at the Central Virginia Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri have once Criminal Justice Academy in Lynchburg, teachagain re-ignited a nationwide conversation on ing officer survival to police cadets training for the proper use of police force. jobs in that region’s 63 police agencies. “Now, technology, social media and the “The most important thing to remember internet has made it so every person canyoube a is that we have to teach our cadets that once Wouldn’t like to live close reporter and these relatively isolated incidents they get out (of the academy), they don’t have to to this? You – 1.6 acre become the standard,” Panebiancocansaid. “But I police the community,” he said. “We have to be in Woodland can unequivocally say that in thelotShores state of Vir- the police for the community. The difference is (Lake ginia, officers get trained so thatAnna) theis waiting sanctity the latter puts us in the community as opposed for you – woodof life is absolutely the No. 1 priority. Andslip, that to over the community. And that works well in ed lot, boat

M i d d l e b u r g

The Perfect Fit

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Middleburg Life, July 2015  
Middleburg Life, July 2015