VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — A bill is on its way to the governor’s desk that would allow local governments to establish citizen review boards with power to not only investigate potential police misconduct, but also decide on discipline.
The bill was part of a slew of those passed by the General Assembly aimed at reforming policing in the state. It was approved on a mostly party-line vote in both chambers. The measure is not veto-proof and Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA) has not yet taken a public position on it.
However, in Virginia Beach one advocate is hoping city leadership will support Gov. Northam’s signature.
“I really encourage him to sign it,” said Damien Stennett, 20, of Virginia Beach.
Stennett recently has risen to become one of the louder voices pushing for a citizen review board with more “power” in the resort city. While the city was the first in the commonwealth to have any citizen led group serving as a “check” on police, Stennett said that he and other social justice advocates believe the current format “doesn’t seem effective.”
The Investigative Review Panel (IRP), the name of the city’s current police watchdog group, is comprised of seven citizens appointed by City Council. When the panel agrees to hear a case involving either a police abuse of authority or other serious misconduct complaints, they are given the police departments’ internal affairs report to essentially judge if the situation was handled properly.
While they can hold a hearing and ask questions of officers, the body has no power to compel them to speak, nor do they have investigative powers to find their own evidence. At the conclusion of their work, a recommendation — which could include disciplinary measures — is passed to the city manager. But because it is a recommendation, there is nothing that forces the city manager or police department to follow it.
Virginia Beach’s City Manager recently announced plans to make changes to improve the current panel, including mandating a written response from the police department within 30 days for all recommendations made by the IRP.
The bill on its way to the governor’s desk would allow the format to change more significantly.
The state legislation would give boards subpoena power and the ability to hire outside legal counsel in investigations. When it comes to officer discipline, the board would be able to make binding decisions after consultation with such officer’s or employee’s direct supervisor or commander.
Virginia Beach’s former Interim Police Chief Tony Zucaro warned of possible unintended consequences of taking sole discretion on disciplinary action away from the department. He said it could keep “problematic employees” within the department longer in a time when protesters are asking for more speedy action.
The proposed law would allow for the officer who the board disciplines to appeal.
“Citizen review panel really touched, touched on my heart and the hearts of all the young people in the area because it’s something we can get involved in and have a say in how our communities are policed,” Stennett said when asked why he continues to push for the changes.
He thinks just knowing there is a place to take complaints, with the power to do something about it, will improve officer-citizen relations.
The law requires boards to reflect the “diversity of the locality.” While specifics on how to achieve that are not spelled out, nobody who currently or has ever worked for the department being overseen is allowed to sit on the board. A retired law-enforcement officer may be appointed in an advisory role only, meaning they cannot vote.
Stennett hopes Virginia Beach City Council will approve a resolution encouraging the governor’s signature.
“All it’s stating is that the City Council and the mayor support the change in law, the signing of it by the governor for Virginia Beach to have a citizens review board,” Stennett said.
Ultimately, the decision to establish the boards would still be left up to localities and the new powers could not be granted until July 1, 2021. Unlike previous versions of the bill sheriff’s departments are exempt, meaning counties like Isle of Wight and York would not be eligible.
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