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Police reform may expand in Virginia, but behind closed doors

New law allows police departments to shield public scrutiny from investigations into law enforcement misconduct. (Photo courtesy via Canva)
New law allows police departments to shield public scrutiny from investigations into law enforcement misconduct. (Photo courtesy via Canva)

This story is being co-published by the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO and the Invisible Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit public accountability journalism organization

A new reform to police disciplinary procedures grants additional powers to Virginia officials investigating law enforcement officers accused of wrongdoing, while also limiting public access to hearings and records. 

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, follows landmark reform legislation passed by the General Assembly in 2020 in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. Gov. Glenn Youngkin last week signed the bill, SB 88, which will go into effect in July. 

The new law, supported by the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police (VACP), has drawn criticism from activists and watchdog groups for potentially barring the public from disciplinary hearings and limiting transparency into records of alleged misconduct. 

It also provides investigators with subpoena power under the Virginia Administrative Process Act for appeal hearings. Finally, it gives the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) the authority to prevent officers-in-training from being certified if they commit serious misconduct.

In an interview, Locke said she intended the bill to finish the reforms she started in 2020 to strengthen Virginia’s notoriously lax police decertification system. Only 81 officers were decertified in Virginia between 1999 and 2020, according to data released by the state. Since the change, 273 officers have seen their credentials removed for misconduct. 

Still, Locke said the agency charged with reviewing law enforcement misconduct, the Criminal Justice Services Board (CJSB), has not moved quickly enough to implement changes. 

“The issue has to be that, if the administration was not following through on what we did in 2020, then we need to ensure that that happens,” she said. “We were getting some decertifications, but at the end of the day, we were not getting all that we needed to get as a consequence of that legislation.”

Police chiefs say the new law allowing departments to shield public scrutiny from investigations into law enforcement misconduct will allow agencies to be more aggressive in pursuing decertification of wayward officers.

But watchdogs say closing the historically public process will prevent journalists and victims of police abuse from overseeing reforms, and could allow officers with a record of abuse to continue to wear the uniform.

“The people who are policed have a legitimate, tangible stake in knowing who is doing the policing and what their backgrounds are,” Alice Minium of the nonprofit OpenOversightVAwrote to lawmakers .“The passage of this bill would move us in the opposite direction and make Virginia, and the South, an outlier.”

Legislative compromise

The version of the bill initially filed by Locke on New Year’s Day outlined more rules for the nascent decertification system, and did not restrict access to any public records or meetings. 

“There was no intent to try to not be transparent,” Locke said in a recent interview with the Invisible Institute and Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO. 

Her original goal was to push the Youngkin administration to finalize and implement the 2020 statewide policing code of conduct. A draft of the new policing code languished in the administrative rulemaking phase for over two years past a legislative deadline. 

The draft code — which had sat untouched since August 2022 — was approved on Jan. 16, two weeks after Locke filed her bill. It went into effect on March 14.

Locke said law enforcement officials this year also pushed to close hearings of the Criminal Justice Services Board, where decertified officers appeal to get their certifications back. Often, still-employed officers are called to testify against their former colleagues. 

The public appeals hearings at  CJSB meetings made some officers reticent to testify against their peers, Locke said.

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said her organization wanted decertification appeals to be heard in private, and departments to have the ability to keep disciplinary records from public view.

Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition on Open Government, who consulted on the bill, said subsequent changes brought a compromise, allowing access to “records of process and policy,” if not details into specific cases. 

Other government transparency advocates pushed for more public access, and questioned whether lawmakers could have simply strengthened requirements for police departments to comply with the full process and public hearings.

“If you’re the people who write the laws, surely you could put in somewhere that the departments are required by law’” to participate, said Josh Stanfield of Activate Virginia

As signed, the new law prohibits the CJSB and DCJS from releasing materials obtained, “for the purposes of decertification of an identifiable law-enforcement or jail officer or (for) the decertification review process.”

DCJS spokeswoman Laureen Hyman said that the “new decertification process requires new regulations to be established and will take approximately 12-18 months to implement.” 

She declined to comment about how the agency would interpret the new FOIA and open meetings restrictions until the new regulations are implemented, and said the agency did not know whether it would utilize its new subpoena power.

What’s at stake

The records and meetings that will be made off-limits provide a look into the often-secretive workings of police discipline in Virginia. 

For example, Polly Griffin, a former VCU Police officer, was fired for using excessive force and threatening language against patients at the VCU Medical Center in Richmond.

VCU Police Chief John Venuti fired Griffin and referred her for criminal prosecution to the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney, prompting an automatic decertification in February 2022 after he notified DCJS

Griffin appealed her termination, which was upheld by a hearing officer with the Virginia Office of Employment Dispute Resolution. The hearing officer found that he did not believe portions of Griffin’s testimony during the hearing, including that she did not know the woman she had used excessive force against. 

Griffin successfully appealed the decertification and was hired by the Petersburg Police Bureau, south of Richmond. OpenOversightVA originally reported her new law enforcement job. 

Her defense attorney, Doug Ramseur, defended Griffin by saying that she was in a “highly emotional situation” involving one of her colleagues being assaulted. Petersburg Police Chief Travis Christian also defended his decision to hire Griffin.

Minium said the public should know more about the details of misconduct found in decertification hearings like Griffin’s — details, like the hearing officer’s finding, that will no longer be public under the new law. 

Under the new system, reinstated officers will “show up in a new town where the other cops certainly know what he’s done because they hired him, but you don’t, and the reporters there don’t, and the defense attorneys don’t, and your neighbors don’t, and his next victims won’t either,” she wrote in an email. “But they should be able to.” 

Previous reporting by the Invisible Institute and VCIJ at WHRO showed that Virginia is also in the minority of states that block access to centralized data about police employment, which allows journalists and the public to track “ wandering officers” who get rehired in law enforcement despite records of misconduct. 

Officers who appeal their decertifications and are reinstated were also cited in legislative testimony as a reason to support the bill.

“We have many, many occasions, because of a lack of a sufficient process, [where] we’ve had to overturn decertifications and allow officers to go back or be hired by law enforcement agencies, which was certainly not the intent of the bill in 2020,” Herndon police chief Maggie DeBoard testified before a senate panel on behalf of the VACP.

She later testified that because agencies have been unable to share or have withheld information from investigators, “it has caused us at times to overturn decertifications that truly needed to be, for officers that needed to be decertified.”

In response to an email request, DeBoard declined to cite specific cases where decertifications were overturned because information was not obtained from a law enforcement agency.

Data released by DCJS in February to OpenOversightVA and shared with the Invisible Institute and VCIJ at WHRO show 29 officers who have been decertified since the reforms went into effect in 2021 have since successfully appealed to get their certifications back — over ten percent of the 273 total decertifications filed during that time. Before 2021, there had been just one successful appeal filed, in 2017. Another 35 appeal cases were pending.

It seems likely that more tweaks to the police oversight system in Virginia are still to come. Dana Schrad of the VACP described the decertification process as a “work in progress.” 

Locke, who has led the reform effort in the Virginia Senate, expects more discussions as policies are implemented. 

“This has been something that has been on my radar since 2016, 2017. Long before George Floyd,” she said. “It was something that I wanted to do for a while.”

Reach Sam Stecklow at sam@invisibleinstitute.com