Police Under Review? Virginia Bill Gives Citizen Boards More Power

By Brian Carlton

September 26, 2020

House’s plan differs from the version passed by the Senate. Now it goes to mediation.

RICHMOND-It happened quickly Friday. There weren’t any speeches for or against. A revised version of SB5035 simply passed through the Virginia House by a 51-46 vote. The bill increases the power of citizen review boards to investigate police. However, the final version differed from the original passed by the Senate. Now the two groups have to find common ground in order to pass it. 

The concept of increasing the power for citizen review boards has been one of the more controversial items heard this session. The only two that come close involve no knock warrants and qualified immunity. First, the bill lets a city or county set up a board that can “receive, investigate and issue findings on complaints” involving police or police department employees. Some examples of this already exist in places like Charlottesville. Most of the existing committees are advisory boards, however. They can investigate to a point, but have no subpoena power and can only issue recommendations.  

That changes if SB5035 passes. The bill lets review boards “make binding disciplinary determinations in cases that involve serious breaches of departmental and professional standards.” Under this plan, review boards could investigate complaints and then decide guilt or innocence. If the officer is guilty, the board then would be able to determine punishment. This could be a letter of reprimand, suspension without pay, demotion within the department or reassignment. They also would be legally able to fire officers if the board decides it’s necessary. Beyond that, the review board would be able to request reports from local law enforcement agencies. That includes going through their budget and then making recommendations. 

Groups Argue If Change Is Necessary 

The proposed new powers divided lawmakers and local groups. Law enforcement groups said it wasn’t needed. John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs Association, told the House Public Safety Committee earlier this week that the boards would become a problem. He felt a citizen review board would just become political. In fact, Jones said, there was no need for one. 

“Sheriffs as elected constitutional officers are constantly under review and we think the election is the ultimate citizen review board,” Jones said. 

In fact, he said, sheriffs already deal with these complaints on a regular basis. 

“Any citizen has access to that sheriff and in fact if you call your sheriff anytime, they can get through and they can file a complaint,” Jones said. “We don’t want a problem to fester.”  

But elections aren’t enough, supporters of the bill argued. Why should people have to wait one month or one year to have their case against police heard? 

“I wonder how and why an aggrieved party should have to wait if in year one of a term something goes terribly wrong with one sheriff or their deputies,” Del. Jeff Bourne asked. “Why should they have to wait for four years, to cast a vote against the incumbent to address some of these issues?”  

Dominique Martin echoed Bourne’s statement, arguing change was necessary.

“We believe this bill is absolutely necessary to achieve some more accountability and transparency with law enforcement officers,” said Martin, a research and policy analyst with the New Virginia Majority. 

One Word Causes Problems

The House and Senate versions of the bill differ due to one paragraph. The revised bill states “a locality shall establish a law-enforcement civilian oversight body.” There’s a big legal difference between shall and may. May is basically an invitation, saying a person or city council is allowed to do something. Shall is pretty clear. You are doing something, regardless if you like the idea or no. In earlier discussion, lawmakers questioned if it was necessary to include the word shall. If the bill passes, that means each city and county would have to set up a citizen board to review police, regardless of cost or need.

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