Virginia Activists Say Police Brutality Hotline Won’t Work

By Arianna Coghill

December 7, 2020

Residents say reports don’t matter without some type of action.

RICHMOND- Donald McEachin wants to establish a national hotline for reporting police brutality. A member of Virginia’s congressional delegation, he wants to provide information. Activists say there’s a better way. Defunding the police, they argue, eliminates the need for the hotline. 

“We’ve seen a lot of instances of police misconduct,” said Rep. McEachin “As you can imagine, there can be instances that we haven’t seen. There could be instances where someone wasn’t killed but they were hurt badly. And they don’t know what to do. We want people to know what to do.” 

On Nov. 25, McEachin announced the Justice Hotline Act of 2020

Cosponsored by Rep. Cedric Richmond (LA-02) and Rep. Jamie Raskin (MD-08), the bill would create a national hotline for survivors of police violence and harassment. The family and household members of survivors would also be able to call the hotline for information.

The hotline would be an anonymous, 24-hour, toll-free resource. Survivors could call the hotline to request information about how to file formal complaints. In addition, they can also connect to assistance programs through the hotline.

“This national hotline will provide people with the information they need to start the healing process,” said McEachin. “We want to restore trust between the community and law enforcement. What happens when the people who’re supposed to protect you fall short?”

McEachin’s bill creates a similar online resource where survivors can access this information.

Barriers to reporting

In Virginia, police are more likely to use excessive force on Black people than any other racial group.

In 2019, 75% of all use of force cases in Richmond were of Black people. Black individuals only make up 48% of the Richmond population, according to Richmond’s Transparency and Accountability Project (RTAP).

Virginia has 95 counties and 38 independent cities. Each has a different police department with differing policies on filing complaints. In addition, programs available to survivors also differ based on their location.

The goal of this legislation is to streamline the process of survivors finding those departments and resources. 

Unfortunately the hotline doesn’t do anything to address complex complaint filing processes. These processes often prevent people from reporting police violence across the country. 

In Richmond, there is no way for people to report police misconduct anonymously. RTAP has been trying to fix that. 

“Over the past three years, RTAP has been trying to get police departments to set up an anonymous reporting mechanism,” said RTAP organizer Yahonce Whitaker. 

Defunding the problem

Advocates say investing in a hotline is not the best way to combat police brutality. According to Whitaker, making reporting police brutality easier isn’t addressing the root of the problem.   

“I want to stress that the real problem here is the over-policing and the extreme use of violence (by police),” said Whitaker. “And without disarming the police, we are often not addressing the real issue.” 

Lawmakers need to hold police officers accountable, said Whitaker. According to her, survivors have become scared to report police misconduct.

“My experience is you cannot trust the police to police themselves,” said Whitaker. “A lot of the community members that we talk to don’t report instances of police misconduct because they don’t trust the policing institutions here in Richmond. Sometimes folks want to come forward with police misconduct anonymously. Sometimes people want to come forward without the very real fear or police retaliation.” 

The hotline would allow people to seek out resources anonymously.

Community-centered solutions 

According to Whitaker, civilian oversight is a more effective way to restore community confidence in reporting allegations of police misconduct. 

Civilian review boards are bodies of civilian representatives who investigate allegations of police misconduct. 

Virginia is one of 23 states that keeps its records of police misconduct under lock and key. According to a review of police departments by WNYC, Virginia doesn’t require them to release an officer’s record of misconduct. Advocates argue that this is too much power for police departments to wield.

“When you have effective civilian oversight, it shifts the balance of power, (taking) investigating and decision making away from the police and into the hands of community members,” said Whitaker. “But it’s so much more than that. Civilian oversight, when done effectively, can have subpoena power so you can compel witnesses to testify. You can look at budgetary information and make budgetary recommendations.”

In July, Virginia lawmakers passed SB5035, which gave civilian review boards the power to investigate complaints against police.

There are limitations to the power of these boards.

Under this law, civilian review boards can’t make binding decisions, they can only provide recommendations. These boards can not request criminal records without the approval of a judge. 

The law doesn’t take effect until July 2021. Until then, some cities are already laying the groundwork to create their review boards.

READ MORE: Virginia’s General Assembly Just Gave Police Some Civilian Oversight

Richmond’s Civilian Review Board

In July, Richmond’s city council approved a review board for its police department.

On December 7, the City Council will discuss nominees for a civilian review board task force. That night, the Council expects to choose the board’s first eight members.

Originally, the council was to nominate these members on Nov 10. That got delayed over a disagreement about whether to include former police officers in the task force. Advocates, like Whitaker, said that this would ultimately defeat the purpose. 

“I think that conversation ought to be led by communities who’re most directly impacted by over-policing and police violence in their locality and not active or former law enforcement,” said Whitaker. 

If approved, the task force would have only 18 days to submit their first status report to the council. Their final deadline to turn in their final recommendations and a budget proposal is on March 1, 2021. 

What comes next

As for McEachin’s bill, Congress convenes next year on Jan 3. The proposal won’t be considered until then.

If passed, McEachin predicts the hotline will begin receiving calls by mid-summer to late winter in 2021.

What you can do

Interested in volunteering to fight police brutality in Richmond? Contact RTAP at their website here. On their site, survivors of police violence and harassment can submit their experiences anonymously.

In Fairfax County, those interested can join the Virginia Citizens Coalition for Police Accountability. The coalition has been working to hold police officers accountable in Northern Virginia since 2010.

Arianna Coghill is a content producer for the Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

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