A General Assembly hearing on police reforms focused on updating what can get Virginia cops “decertified” and off the job
Virginia legislators, law enforcement officials and police reform advocates joined together in a virtual committee meeting to tackle the state’s problems with accountability and transparency in law enforcement on Wednesday.
“We need to strengthen our decertification statute by expanding the grounds for losing your certification to be a police officer,” said Ashna Khanna, legislative director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
The ACLU of Virginia has called for the state to pass a bill eliminating qualified immunity and expanding decertification grounds to include excessive force and unethical behavior. They believe that legislation that enforces accountability would allow people and their families in the commonwealth to receive damages if they’re hurt or killed by police.
“Let’s have the legal rights of Virginians decided by Virginia courts with Virginia judges and Virginia juries,” said Khanna. “It’s the Virginia way.”
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Under Virginia’s current decertification statute, all felonies and certain misdemeanor convictions involving “moral turpitude”, failure to maintain training requirements and failing drug tests can result in an officer being decertified, meaning that they can no longer serve as a law enforcement officer in Virginia.
However, according to the ACLU, the state has only decertified 33 officers. The statute further allows officers who were fired by one agency for misconduct to be hired by others, says the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.
“Virginia needs change now. Virginians like Marcus-David Peters and Natasha McKenna needed mental health services but instead were killed by police,” said Khanna. “Their killers have not been charged with a crime and are largely protected by Virginia’s laws.”
Associate Professor at the U.S. Naval War College Lindsey P. Cohn said standardization can play a large role in accountability, but only if the policy is actually holding those who misbehave accountable.
“If power is used to protect those who make errors or misbehave, this can make things much worse,” said Cohn. “It’s important that the public have access to information about possible violations of policy or protocol.”
Representatives from the Virginia State Police, the Virginia Sherriff’s Association and the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police expressed support for amending the state’s decertification policy.
“We’d like to see that include not just termination of an officer for … integrity or truthfulness violations, but also excessive use of force,” said Maggie DeBoard, Herndon’s chief of police and incoming president of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.
While there was an emphasis on policy reform, the meeting also touched on methods of policing that are potentially ineffective.
“Policing is a part of a larger system,” said Del. Don Scott (D-VA). “There are several good policies in place. But policy isn’t everything.”
While not speaking about Virginia specifically, Cohn stated that policing that focuses on punishment as a deterrent to committing crime is an ineffective way to reduce crime and improve citizen satisfaction.
According to Cohn, policing that is legitimate, de-escalatory and accountable is the most effective way to police a people and people obey the law and cooperate with law enforcement when they view these legal authorities as legitimate.
“There are larger things that need to be addressed. Laws need to be just. Government needs to be transparent and accountable,” said Cohn. “Policing must be oriented towards the rights and safety of the whole community and the community must perceive it to be so.”