Virginia’s General Assembly Just Gave Police Some Civilian Oversight

By Brian Carlton

October 15, 2020

Senate and House approve final version of SB5035, sending it to the governor for his signature.

RICHMOND-Beginning next July, Virginia law enforcement will get some civilian oversight, if local residents agree. On Wednesday, the General Assembly adopted the final version of SB5035, sending it to the governor for his signature. The bill increases the power of citizen review boards to investigate complaints against police. 

The concept of increasing the power for citizen review boards has been one of the more controversial items heard this session. The only other two that come close involve no knock warrants and qualified immunity. First, the bill lets a city or county set up a board that will “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 boards are advisory committees, however. They can investigate to a point, but have no subpoena power and can only issue recommendations. 

That changes once the governor signs this bill into law. It lets review boards “make binding disciplinary determinations in cases that involve serious breaches of departmental and professional standards.” Review boards will now be able to investigate complaints and then decide guilt or innocence. If the officer is guilty, the board then will determine punishment in coordination with the local police chief. This could be a letter of reprimand, suspension without pay, demotion within the department or reassignment. They also can legally fire officers if the board decides it’s necessary. 

Beyond that, the review board will be able to make policy suggestions. The key word here is suggestion. They can request reports from local police departments, including taking a look at the operation’s finances. Once they have the data, the review board may recommend changes. The department can reject those ideas, however, as long as they explain their reason in writing. 

A few final changes

Before signing off on the bill Wednesday, the House and Senate made a few changes. First, this isn’t mandatory. If cities or counties want to create a citizen review board, they can. If not, nobody’s forcing them to.

Second, this only affects police departments. Sheriffs were included in the original House version, but that part was removed in negotiation. The argument from groups like the Virginia Sheriffs Association was that unlike police chiefs, sheriffs are elected.

“Sheriffs as elected constitutional officers are constantly under review and we think the election is the ultimate citizen review board,” John Jones, the VSA’s executive director, told the committee. 

House members argued that elections aren’t enough. 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 during the committee meeting. “Why should they have to wait for four years, to cast a vote against the incumbent to address some of these issues?”  

In the end, however, House negotiators agreed to remove sheriffs from the bill so it would pass the Senate.

Now it’ll be up to local elected officials if boards get set up. Nothing has to be decided immediately. The new law doesn’t take effect until July 1, 2021. That gives cities and counties more than eight months to make a decision.

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