Virginia Democrats split on mandatory civilian review boards, exempting sheriffs offices

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – During the special session in Virginia, the House and Senate have both passed bills to empower civilian review boards but Democrats are still split on some key policy points.

How lawmakers reconcile those differences will have a big impact on where these independent panels are established and which law enforcement agencies are subject to heightened scrutiny.

Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) has said requiring localities to set up civilian review boards would ensure police are held accountable no matter where they work. Herring, the House Democratic Caucus Chair, introduced a bill that would mandate the creation of these boards by July 2021.

Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield), who introduced the Senate version of the bill, said it should be optional.

“The impetus to create a CRB really needs to come from the community, rather than a top-down mandate from the state,” Hashmi said.

The Legal Aid Justice Center’s Kim Rolla, who worked closely with the City of Charlottesville on their CRB, agreed the process needs to be community driven. She warned against creating the appearance of accountability without local buy-in.

Democrats also need to come to a consensus on whether sheriffs office should be subject to this oversight model. Currently, Herring’s bill includes sheriffs offices whereas Hashmi’s only applies to local and campus police.

Herring fears this exclusion would mean more than 60 percent of citizens in the commonwealth–for whom sheriffs offices are the primary law enforcement agency–would be denied oversight.

Virginia Sheriffs’ Association Executive Director John Jones said CRB’s aren’t the right fix when it comes to an elected office.

“If the people don’t want them to continue to serve as their sheriff then they’re defeated and you get a new sheriff. That’s about the best citizens review you can get,” Jones said

Jones said political opponents could infiltrate these boards, prompting a “witch hunt” that could destabilize departments. Jones added that deputies serve at the will of the sheriff, meaning they can be terminated at any time for misconduct.

Hashmi said there needs to be another layer of accountability for sheriffs offices and the Virginia State Police, which her bill also exempts. She said lawmakers are already researching best practices for possible legislation in 2021.

“I want to make sure we are clear that there will be some kind of an oversight that is going to be put into place for sheriffs and VSP but we need to do that differently,” Hashmi said. “This bill is very targeted.”

As Democrat debate these details, Republicans remain concerned about the makeup of these boards, the powers being awarded to them and the message they send to law enforcement.

The legislation allows local elected officials to appoint board members after a public hearing, as well as decide what training they’ll receive–if any.

Current law enforcement officers would be prohibited from participating, something Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) opposes.

“That’s like saying on a doctors review board you’re not going to have any doctors. It makes no sense,” DeSteph said.

Hashmi said retired law enforcement would be able to serve, in addition to others in the legal profession.

“An independent board doesn’t mean an unqualified board,” said Hashmi, who also noted that existing CRBs in the commonwealth have adopted extensive training policies for their members.

Though at least three of these boards already exist in Virginia and several more are in the works, Hashmi said her bill goes a step further by granting them subpoena power. She said it also makes the decisions of CRBs binding, though officers could still appeal.

Law enforcement groups want to see these panels act in an advisory role instead. One leading Democrat joined Republicans voicing concerns over the decision-making power of CRBs in the bills.

“That’s the one part in here I have some issues with but not enough to make me vote against the bill,” said Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax).

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