As Virginia lawmakers weigh civilian oversight of police, some in law enforcement object

As Virginia lawmakers weigh civilian oversight of police, some in law enforcement object
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)

With the General Assembly set to convene for a special session next week, Virginia lawmakers are signaling strong support for legislation empowering local citizen review boards to investigate and in some cases discipline police officers accused of misconduct.

“In my opinion civilian review boards must be the centerpiece of police reform,” Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, who chairs the House committee on public safety, said during a recent hearing. “If done right, they have the potential to create much needed transparency and accountability in law enforcement.”

But the proposals are increasingly drawing opposition from some in law enforcement, particularly elected sheriffs around the state who argue that because they are directly elected by voters every four years they are already accountable to the communities they police.

“That’s the ultimate citizen review board,” said John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, who said his membership is unanimous in its opposition to additional oversight. “Our concern is you would have the sheriff’s political opponents clamoring to get on the review board because they wanted to defeat him at the next election.”

Meanwhile the reaction from police chiefs, who are appointed and oversee law enforcement in cities and most larger counties, has been decidedly mixed, with some backing the concept and others voicing vigorous opposition. Officers groups have so far argued for guard rails and training for members.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the widespread civic unrest that followed has prompted local governments around the state to begin discussions about establishing review boards for their police and sheriff’s departments. But under current state law, the bodies they can create operate in an advisory capacity only, typically reviewing investigations conducted internally by the police department’s internal affairs officers and offering recommendations to the chief.

Criminal justice reform advocates have been calling on lawmakers to pass legislation that would give local governments the authority to create boards with more teeth, including the power to conduct their own investigations into complaints and subpoena power to obtain department records and compel witnesses testimony. And they say local governments should have the option to give the citizen panels the final authority over the most serious civilian complaints.

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