VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — The movement calling for racial justice and greater police accountability across the nation has Virginia Beach City Council revisiting how its police oversight panel operates.

Since 1991 a group of seven citizens, appointed by council, have been charged with making sure that when police police their own, they are doing it factually and completely.

However, in the wake of several high-profile police-involved killings, it became clear that many groups are unaware the city has the panel. Even more so, those who know about it appear unsure as to how effective the panel really is.

“I am getting feedback from citizens because they feel like the panel we have now doesn’t have teeth,” said Councilwoman Sabrina Wooten during Tuesday afternoon’s council workshop.

Currently, the panel, which is run through the city’s human resources department, will become involved in either an abuse of authority or other serious misconduct investigation once they receive a citizen complaint.

Following the completion of the police department’s internal affairs investigation, the panel will hold a hearing in which members are able to review the department’s confidential case file on the alleged incident. Both the person bringing the complaint and a representative from the police have their chance to present their side and ultimately the panel will decide if they agree, don’t agree or don’t think enough investigating has been done to reach the conclusion reached by the department.

The panel’s recommendation is then given to the city manager, who can direct further action on the any police department employee.

“Recommendations … are just that, they are just imposed,” Wooten said. “[People] don’t feel that it’s impactful.” 

Interim Police Chief Tony Zucaro, who mentioned the IRP as part of a larger presentation about factors leading to the department’s accreditation with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, admitted reviews of the panel are “mixed.”

“Where you stand is where you are sitting,” Zucaro said, explaining that IRP recommendations have still had an impact in his point of view.

“We conducted additional investigative work. There was another occasion where we took some suggestions from the IRP on some of our animal shelter process intake and release protocols. So for some to say that the IRP makes recommendations and they are not followed is somewhat inaccurate,” Zucaro said. “That said, I think it’s worth additional conversation.”

Wooten, along with Mayor Bobby Dyer and Council Member Jessica Abbott asked for further discussion to be had as well.

Those looking for a “revamp” point out that the panel doesn’t have the power to do its own investigative work with no subpoena power.

Zucaro explained that an alternative, more powerful structure would look akin to a separate office of internal affairs, where teams of trained employees do investigations, present information to the citizen body, and then the citizens would make decisions.

“That could impact training, it could impact officer accountability, they would have the ability to subpoena persons and would have the ultimate responsibility for delivering punitive discipline,” Zucaro said. 

However, he warned about how that could prolong the criminal process in a time when protesters are asking for more speedy action.

In the case of Eric Garner, a black man who died after being placed in a police chokehold in New York, Zucaro pointed out that the long investigative process kept the officer involved employed five years after the incident.

“We’re able to separate our problematic employees in a much quicker fashion,” Zucaro said.

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