The 2020 death of George Floyd rocked the nation. Protests and riots broke out, and states responded. Earlier this year, Virginia signed massive criminal justice reform into law. The reform affects everything from how police may stop a vehicle to how criminals are sentenced. One of the major changes, beginning in July, is how citizen review boards can affect law enforcement.
Prior to Reform
Virginians have long been able to create review boards that oversee police behavior. Their opinions were taken into consideration, but ultimately, the boards had no power. They could simply advise the police on which actions to take, and the police could completely ignore those suggestions.
Now, these review panels have “teeth.” Local governments can create review panels. If there are complaints against police behavior, these reports will go to the board. The board can now launch investigations against authorities. These investigations have the potential to be wide-reaching. According to the law, review panels can “undertake any other duties as reasonably necessary for the law-enforcement civilian oversight body to effectuate its lawful purpose.” This could, in theory, go as far as giving the board subpoena power. Theoretically, a citizen review board could ask for records and compel a police officer to testify.
Moreover, the board will have the power to create “binding disciplinary determinations in cases that involve serious breaches of departmental and professional standards.” This could lead to suspensions without pay and even firings.
Sheriffs will remain exempt from the disciplinary actions of a citizen review board. The prevailing philosophy is that since Sheriffs are elected, they are inherently subject to civilian review. The fact that Sheriffs are elected could also create problems within review boards. Boards could potentially be filled with a Sheriff’s political opponents, making any review of their behavior biased.
All changes come with detractors. Police Chiefs have expressed concern over this reform. Normally, police oversight and discipline are the responsibility of the Chief, and many feel they are being stripped of their powers and duties.
Surprisingly, some of the most vocal opposition comes from those who believe that this reform does not go far enough. Creating a citizen review board is not mandatory. Many local governments can simply opt out, making the reform meaningless in their area. Chesapeake Police Chief Kelvin Wright expressed a similar concern. In his experience, citizen-led boards are actually more lenient. There have been times where he wanted an officer fired, but at the grievance hearing, citizens often chose to keep the officer employed.
At The Law Office of Ann Thayer, PLLC, we are staying informed of all reforms and watching them closely. We are here to defend Virginia’s citizens, and we can help keep authorities honest and in compliance with the law. For a free consultation, call (703) 940-0001, or contact us online.