For more than a year, the Charlottesville Police Civilian Review Board and Charlottesville City Council have been locked in a dispute over how much power the recently established law enforcement oversight board should have. But clarity is coming soon, thanks to new legislation from the Virginia General Assembly.
Over the course of nearly 12 weeks this fall, Virginia lawmakers passed a string of criminal justice reforms, sparked by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. The assembly’s new Democratic majority brought a variety of progressive changes to policing in Virginia—including allowing for civilian review boards with real power, a common request from activists seeking reform nationwide. The changes will take effect July 1, 2021, giving lawmakers time to expand the bill to include sheriff’s departments.
“We can pass as many laws as we want governing law enforcement behavior, but this is the one that ensures that there is meaningful oversight and accountability if things do miss the mark,” Delegate Sally Hudson told the CRB during its November 12 virtual meeting.
In June, the CRB voted to expand its own powers, adopting a set of bylaws that were drawn up by an initial panel of activists and experts last year. At that point, City Council delayed approving the decision until the legislative session had concluded.
In stark contrast to the CRB’s current limited advisory role, the new reforms will allow the board to receive and investigate complaints involving police officers or department employees, with the power to subpoena documents and witnesses. If the accused party is found guilty, the board can issue a binding disciplinary ruling for cases “that involve serious breaches of departmental and professional standards,” including demotion, suspension without pay, or termination.
Outside of these duties, the CRB will be able to review all of CPD’s internal affairs investigations and issue its own findings on each ruling. It will also have the power to request reports on the department’s annual expenditures and suggest changes—answering local activists’ recent calls for transparency on CPD’s whopping $18 million budget.
Under the new law, the CRB will evaluate CPD’s practices, policies, and procedures, and recommend improvements. If the department does not implement the changes, the board can require it to issue a public written statement explaining its reasoning.
The CRB’s Vice Chair Will Mendez later expressed frustration over the stipulations put on the board’s law enforcement representative, a position currently held by Phillip Seay. He is able to provide guidance but not vote on decisions, under both the board’s current ordinance and the new state legislation.
“The community didn’t want law enforcement members to vote, because there’s always been a problem with police getting off,” responded Legal Aid Justice Center organizer Harold Folley during public comment. ”We felt like it would be the same way with the [CRB], where the police officer would have bias. …It’s unfortunate that y’all are pushing that.”
As the CRB waits for the bill to take effect, members will use the powerful provisions to revise the board’s existing ordinance and bylaws, which must be approved by City Council. With the bill’s enactment date just seven months away, CRB members agreed to meet twice a month.
“The worrisome part of it for me is having the support of City Council,” said member Dorenda Johnson. “Even with what has been passed, I am just truly hoping that they will be able to and are willing to help us the way that they should.”