The partnership will look at multiple ways of investigating officer-involved shootings.

RICHMOND-Police departments shouldn’t investigate their own shootings. That was the takeaway from a Monday meeting between Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and the Virginia NAACP. Herring and the group agreed to form a partnership, with the goal of developing new policies.  

“The Virginia NAACP urged the Attorney General to take a holistic approach to identifying tangible solutions that address this growing problem here in the Commonwealth,” said Robert. N. Barnette, Jr., President of the Virginia NAACP. “Virginia must have a well-defined policy that ensures impartial investigation, transparency of facts, and reassures Virginians that justice will be served in fatal cases involving law enforcement officers.”

A Series of Problems

The issue stems from a series of police shootings over the last four months, all involving young Black men. First, there was Orlando Carter. Around 5 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, Richmond police followed the 27-year-old after he ran a stop sign. In the parking lot of Oliver Crossing Apartments, Carter exited his car. Soon after, Richmond Police Officer Ja-Ontay Wilson shot Carter three times in the back. Things got weird once that case went to court, as testimony didn’t match. 

Then there was Xzavier Hill. Two Virginia State Police troopers shot and killed the 18-year-old on January 9, during a 4:30 a.m. traffic stop in Goochland County. Troopers clocked the teen going 96 in a 65 mph zone and took off in pursuit. Troopers then claimed he was reaching for a gun in the front seat when they shot him. This video details what the grand jury heard and questions remaining from the police report. After Xzavier’s death, his mother asked the NAACP to get involved. The Virginia chapter asked Herring to launch a state investigation. However, since a grand jury already ruled in the troopers’ favor, it would have been hard to reopen the case, as Herring would have needed new information. 

The most recent case involved a shooting death people still don’t understand. A Virginia Beach police officer shot and killed 25-year-old Donovan Lynch March 26, but nobody can say why. The officer never turned his body camera on. Also, the department only says that Lynch was “brandishing a gun” when he was shot. Virginia Beach Police Chief Paul Neudigate even acknowledged, both in a March 27 press conference and while speaking to city council on March 30, that the department doesn’t even know all the facts in the case. 

A Call to Action 

Originally in that last case, the Virginia Beach department planned to investigate their own officer. After the NAACP, Herring and several others called for an independent investigation, Neudigate agreed. He gave control over to the Virginia State Police.  

Herring said situations like these strengthen his belief police investigations should be independent. 

“Investigations into officer-involved shootings should be handled by independent, unaffiliated agencies in order to avoid conflicts of interest, and to maximize the public’s confidence that justice will be served and the matter will be handled in the most honest, objective, and transparent way possible,” Herring said. “Self-investigation of such a serious matter can understandably lead to doubt or skepticism about the outcome, which can in turn lead to mistrust and damaged relationships between agencies and the communities they serve.”  

Herring added that he’s seen a number of states try different methods. He’ll be looking to see what’s worked and what hasn’t. One of those states is California, where under a law that took effect this year, all police-involved shootings automatically fall under the jurisdiction of the California Attorney General. Previously, just like in Virginia, local officials investigated their own department’s shootings. 

Wisconsin, meanwhile, is a bit different. Anytime there’s an officer-involved shooting, state officials hire independent investigators to look into the case. These are people coming from outside, as they can’t have any connection to the agency they’re investigating. 

A Different Option

“I intend to engage my colleagues around the county and the Commonwealth to build a consensus around a stronger process that promotes transparency, impartiality, and public trust,” Herring said. 

He’ll be doing that alongside members of the Virginia NAACP. The group said it will be identifying proposals that work both on a local and state level. 

“In working with the Attorney General’s office, the Virginia NAACP hopes to bring state agencies and community leaders together to bring meaningful policy recommendations that lead to systemic change,” the group said in a statement.

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at brian@vadogwood.com.