VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — While Virginia Beach City Council plans to make more changes to the way its citizen-led police watchdog group operates, giving the body investigative and disciplinary powers are no longer among the options being considered.
On Tuesday at City Council’s retreat, members unanimously decided they did not want to take advantage of newly-granted authority from the state to give their self-appointed Investigative Review Panel (IRP) the right to issue binding disciplinary decisions in cases where a Virginia Beach Police officer may have abused their authority or engaged in misconduct.
In a split decision, six council members also opted not to explore giving the panel subpoena power and the ability to hire outside legal counsel.
The decisions themselves are not official, as no formal vote was taken. However, considering both proposals have been pushed for heavily by advocates for police reform, Councilwoman Sabrina Wooten (Centerville) said Wednesday that she expects many will disapprove of the direction being taken.
“Since the death of George Floyd, it’s been loud and clear, I’ve heard it. I guess the question is, as a body, are we listening?” Wooten said.
Wooten — herself a former chaplain for VBPD — has been outspoken in saying the current system “is not working,” as the IRP can only review internal police department investigations after they are complete.
While the city manager already switched up several panel policies, Wooten along with council members Louis Jones (Bayside), Aaron Rouse (At-Large), Jessica Abbott (Kempsville) and Guy Tower (Beach) wanted to give the IRP power to dig into police complaints themselves.
“The investigatory and subpoena powers would at least give the Investigative Review Panel some authority to investigate, to call witnesses whether it be police officers or other people involved in a matter that would give them some type of authority and accountability,” Wooten said.
She also wants to see the IRP have a budget and more staff.
However, Vice Mayor Jim Wood (Lynnhaven) — himself a former officer — felt adding the subpoena powers wouldn’t be necessary saying it would make the IRP a “quasi-judicial entity.”
“The city manager added into [IRP policy] that people can complain to him or complain to the police department over the way they’ve been treated,” Wood said. “Citizens review boards are good but the ultimate responsibility lies with the police chief and the city manager, and ultimately with the council to make sure the police department … supports and defends peoples constitutional rights.”
Wood said if it is found that the police and city manager didn’t complete a thorough investigation, then it is up to City Council to act.
He also said that adding another “check” on police in a climate where recruiting and retaining officers is tough, may not be the best idea “even under the guise of increased transparency.”
Wood said all his fellow council members are in favor of increasing the number of panelists on the IRP as well as having membership changed to better reflect community demographics.
Wood said the public will have a chance to weigh in on the council’s decision once the changes are brought before them for a formal vote.