The General Assembly passed a bill this week to allow localities to establish “citizen oversight bodies” to investigate police misconduct complaints — and discipline officers who they determine break the rules.
The bill allows city councils and county boards of supervisors statewide to create the civilian panels starting next July 1 to examine use-of-force complaints, cases of deaths and serious injuries while in custody, and other complaints.
The boards would have investigative powers, including the authority to ask Circuit Court judges to subpoena records and witnesses.
The boards could mete out discipline — ranging from written reprimands to demotions to terminations — “after consultation … with the officer’s direct supervisor or commanding officer,” the legislation says. Officers facing such investigations can have a lawyer to represent them, the bill says, and they can file a grievance if they don’t agree with a particular outcome.
The current special session of the General Assembly, which followed the in-custody death of George Floyd and its aftermath, has focused in large part on criminal justice reform.
The bill to allow the new civilian oversight panels, sponsored by Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, passed both chambers on strictly party line votes in recent weeks, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.
The measure is now on the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam, who must decide whether to sign it into law — or send it back to the legislature with proposed changes.
Hashmi, for one, says that giving more authority to the people is crucial.
“The concept of civilian oversight of military and policing authorities is inherent to the philosophy of the Constitution,” Hashmi said in a statement. “This legislation is in accordance with the vision of the Constitution’s drafters who deliberately placed authority of the military in the hands of a civilian Commander in Chief.”
Hashmi said that such boards “give communities a structured process to address issues of policing concern,” and also “increase transparency and collaboration between local police departments and the communities they serve.”
Though an initial version of the bill would have applied to both sheriff’s offices and police departments, the final version applies only to police departments. Localities where the sheriff’s office is the primary law enforcement agency — such as York County and Isle of Wight County — would not be affected by the bill.
The legislation would also not apply to the state police or other statewide law enforcement agencies.
The civilian oversight bodies would not take part in criminal investigations into a police officer’s conduct — such as whether an officer was legally justified in shooting someone. That would still be the province of each jurisdiction’s commonwealth’s attorney, working with police investigators on the cases.
But the boards would have significant power to determine what happens with officers involved in such incidents, and whether they remain on the force even if they don’t face criminal charges.
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said the chiefs are glad the bill was amended to make the citizen panels discretionary on the part of the localities — rather than mandatory.
But she contended that the “best model” for such boards is “a citizen advisory committee that works with the chief” to give him “a sounding board” that would “provide insight on programs and policies.”
Citizens untrained in police work, Schrad said, “aren’t qualified” to investigate misconduct cases or mete out discipline on officers.
“Police discipline should be left to the chief, who usually is stricter than civilian boards in disciplining and terminating problem officers,” she said. “Most citizen complaints are handled swiftly by the agency and don’t rise to the level of need for public review.”
Schrad asserted that the move to discipline by citizens would increase the push for police unions and “weaken the authority of a police chief to impose discipline and manage his employees.”
According to the legislation, the civilian oversight boards in each jurisdiction “shall reflect the demographic diversity of the locality,” meaning that the board’s racial breakdown should largely mirror that of its city or county.
The bill does not say how many members each panel should have, how they would be appointed, or how often they should meet.
Aside from investigating particular incidents, the boards would also be tasked with investigating police departments’ policies and procedures and making recommendations. The police agency would have to provide — in writing and in public — its “rationale” for not heeding a particular recommendation.
If signed into the law by the governor, the bill would go into law next July 1, meaning the new panels could begin after that.
“The delayed enactment date … gives local governments the opportunity to engage with citizens groups in the development and implementation” of such boards, said Jake Giovia, Hashmi’s chief of staff.
Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, email@example.com
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Published at Sat, 17 Oct 2020 18:25:48 +0000