Virginia police chiefs want to make it easier to banish bad cops from profession

Virginia police chiefs want to make it easier to banish bad cops from profession
Police guarded the Rotunda at UVA on Aug. 11, 2018, in Charlottesville, the anniversary weekend of the deadly white supremacist rally that left one dead and dozens injured. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone says he’s fired police officers for unethical conduct and using excessive force. And he says that to his dismay, he’s watched as those same officers get hired to work in a nearby department.

“I’ve seen it all too often,” he told lawmakers Wednesday. “Clearly we have to do something to put control measures in place to stop that.”

In the debate over police reform, there hasn’t been a lot of common ground between law enforcement and advocates seeking change. But overhauling Virginia’s lax rules on decertifying officers emerged as an area of widespread agreement as the House of Delegates convened to hear testimony on criminal justice issues.

A potential bill addressing the issue, which has also been highlighted by Senate Democrats and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, was one of two proposed by the ACLU of Virginia. On the police side, every law enforcement representative who spoke Wednesday described the current system as a problem in need of fixing.

Under current law, it’s extremely rare for police officers to lose their licenses, which means they can no longer be hired to work in a police department. Virginia has decertified just 33 officers while other states have decertified an average of 681, according to records compiled by USA Today last year.

That’s because under Virginia law, the state can only take action to take officers off the street if they fail a drug test, don’t maintain their training requirements or are convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors involving moral turpitude or sexual misconduct.

Prosecution is rare and, as Virginia State Police Superintendent Gary Settle observed, whether police misconduct rises to the level of a criminal charge often varies depending on who is reviewing the allegations. “Consistency there is needed and would help,” he said.

In practice, that means if a local department determines an officer lied, used excessive force or otherwise violated the public trust and isn’t prosecuted and found guilty, that officer can simply resign and apply for a job at a different agency.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.