RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — After a week of protests across the state, Virginia lawmakers are brainstorming reforms to improve police accountability and community relations.
“They’re going to be hard conversations but they’re necessary conversations if we’re going to restore that trust,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), vice-chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
It’s possible that new legislation could be introduced during a special session expected later this summer, depending on the rules that are set for it. Otherwise, these reforms won’t be introduced until next year’s General Assembly.
Policing the police
Police and sheriffs departments often settle complaints in-house through internal affairs divisions. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for stricter oversight with different ideas on how to accomplish it.
McClellan said there needs to be an independent, transparent process to evaluate police misconduct complaints. She said a handful of localities have citizen review boards but their power is lacking.
“There is a concern they may not have enough teeth and they may not be consistent,” McClellan said.
Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Powhatan) said lawmakers are currently reviewing the authorities of these boards. They’re often set up at the local level but she says state legislation could grant them subpoena power and give more weight to their conclusions, which are usually non-binding.
Del. Rob Bell (R-Charlottesville) said state police and special prosecutors often intervene to provide objectivity during investigations into serious complaints levied against officers.
“That happens frequently but not always. We can make it always and that should be something we should explore,” Bell said.
Identifying ‘bad cops’
Virginia is one of several states in which the disciplinary histories of officers are not public record. Lawmakers are considering changing that too.
Hashmi said there needs to be better information sharing so that officers fired for excessive force aren’t rehired in different departments.
“This is a nationwide problem, it’s not just a Virginia problem because there is no clear data or tracking mechanism,” Hashmi said.
Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) used to work in law enforcement. He said the state shouldn’t explicitly prohibit the rehiring of officers fired for misconduct. Reeves said officers are subject to background checks when they apply for new positions and their reasons for past termination would be screened.
“Let that jurisdiction make that determination and then if they hired him knowing he shouldn’t be in law enforcement, I think the liability lies with that jurisdiction,” Reeves said.
Reeves also opposes making personnel files and disciplinary histories public record. He said complaints included in those files are often unsubstantiated.
“I would fight against that to be honest just because –if you’re going to do that–does that mean everyone in the government is going to have their personnel jackets open?” Reeves said. “I just don’t think that’s the direction we need to go.”
Making good officers better
Reeves said there should be more investment in mental health support for officers. He also supports more training for officers with a focus on implicit bias, de-escalation, use of force and crisis intervention.
“The better you train, the better you perform in the field. We’ve seen that in our military and we need to ingrain that in our law enforcement as well,” Reeves said. “Most of those guys are doing a great job each and every day.”
Reeves said he supports a comprehensive review of the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services policies guiding local law enforcement.
McClellan and Hashmi are pushing for a thorough review as well. They hope it will result in higher and more consistent standards of operation across county lines.
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