Virginia police chiefs want to make it easier to banish bad cops from law enforcement

By: - July 23, 2020 12:01 am

Police guarded the Rotunda at UVA on Aug. 11, 2018, in Charlottesville, the anniversary weekend of the deadly white supremacist rally that left one dead and dozens injured. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone says he’s fired police officers for unethical conduct and using excessive force. And he says that to his dismay, he’s watched as those same officers get hired to work in a nearby department.

“I’ve seen it all too often,” he told lawmakers Wednesday. “Clearly we have to do something to put control measures in place to stop that.”

In the debate over police reform, there hasn’t been a lot of common ground between law enforcement and advocates seeking change. But overhauling Virginia’s lax rules on decertifying officers emerged as an area of widespread agreement as the House of Delegates convened to hear testimony on criminal justice issues.

A potential bill addressing the issue, which has also been highlighted by Senate Democrats and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, was one of two proposed by the ACLU of Virginia. On the police side, every law enforcement representative who spoke Wednesday described the current system as a problem in need of fixing.

Under current law, it’s extremely rare for police officers to lose their licenses, which means they can no longer be hired to work in a police department. Virginia has decertified just 33 officers while other states have decertified an average of 681, according to records compiled by USA Today last year.

That’s because under Virginia law, the state can only take action to take officers off the street if they fail a drug test, don’t maintain their training requirements or are convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors involving moral turpitude or sexual misconduct.

Prosecution is rare and, as Virginia State Police Superintendent Gary Settle observed, whether police misconduct rises to the level of a criminal charge often varies depending on who is reviewing the allegations. “Consistency there is needed and would help,” he said.

In practice, that means if a local department determines an officer lied, used excessive force or otherwise violated the public trust and isn’t prosecuted and found guilty, that officer can simply resign and apply for a job at a different agency.

And like Chief Boone in Norfolk, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police says it’s common for officers to jump to another department.

In the past, the association has resisted efforts to tighten the rules. When lawmakers proposed legislation addressing the issue in 2018, the group’s director, Dana Schrad, argued the change would interfere with discipline and hiring and require a statewide standard for misconduct, according to the Daily Press.

Those concerns remain, according to the chiefs group. But they say legislation could be passed immediately adding Brady violations, or proof of lying that can be used in court to question an officer’s integrity, to reasons an officer can be decertified. In a policy paper, the group calls for further study on other potential violations that would lead to decertification.

The ACLU of Virginia agreed that statewide standards for conduct should accompany an expansion of the decertification process, but didn’t suggest it would take an in depth study to figure out what they should be.

“We need to put statewide standards for everyone,” said Ashna Khanna, the group’s legislative director. “One of the things that usually comes up is policing is not one-size fits all, but I think we can all agree everyone deserves fair and equitable treatment no matter what zip code they live in.”

Under the current system, police chiefs told lawmakers they have to ask an applicant’s previous employer to review their personnel file, a request Herndon Police Chief Maggie DeBoard said departments sometimes reject.

DeBoard, the incoming president of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, observed that some department don’t even ask for past employment records when hiring an officer.

“There is nothing more frustrating from a chief’s standpoint than to fire an officer or have an officer resign in lieu of termination only to see that officer go to another agency and be hired,” she said. “It’s a very frustrating place for us.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.