Administration’s inertia on decertifying officers sets troubling precedent
Let’s say you order a washing machine online. The manufacturer admits the appliance is in short supply, but pledges to deliver the item in a couple of months – tops. You pay the hefty cost.
You wait. And wait some more.
In the meantime, you keep schlepping your dirty clothes to the laundromat, fishing around for enough quarters each week. You wonder what’s going on with your purchase. Nor can the appliance maker tell you when your machine will actually arrive.
That example is similar, in a roundabout way, to the issue of getting rid of bad cops in Virginia. Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration has repeatedly delayed updating parts of a 2020 law to decertify rogue police officers, despite a deadline that’s more than a year old. What’s going on?
More tools to remove bad cops have taken effect since then; the changes are an obvious improvement. They help bolster the confidence of Virginia residents toward the men and women in blue. But the administration was supposed to have approved related statewide standards more than a year ago – and still hasn’t.
VPM recently reported on the foot-dragging.
In essence, Youngkin, a Republican, and his public safety officials have thumbed their noses at the law passed during the administration of Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam, which expanded reasons for officer decertification.
This is a bothersome precedent. It could lead to reprisals when political parties shift power, in a never-ending tit-for-tat in which duly enacted laws aren’t enforced by succeeding administrations. Ultimately, Virginians lose.
“I’m kind of mystified,” state Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax and a supporter of the 2020 law, told me in an interview. He also wondered if the administration could be sued over the delay.
The governor “doesn’t get to pick and choose what laws he wants to follow,” he said.
“We worked very closely with law-enforcement leadership to design changes to the process,” Surovell continued. Police chiefs and sheriffs had been frustrated about the inability to root out bad officers, and the options to decertify police had been limited.
Before 2020, departments could decertify officers only after they were convicted of felonies or specific misdemeanors, or if they refused a drug test. Nor were law-enforcement agencies always checking closely with previous employers when officers tried to relocate.
A Dec. 1 letter from Surovell, the Senate majority leader; Sen. Mamie Locke, the Senate Democratic Caucus chair; and Del. Don Scott, the incoming speaker of the Democratic-majority House of Delegates, asked administration officials when they intend “to comply with state law” and why the review has taken so long.
The law’s approval in 2020 came partly as a response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Virginia legislators and high-ranking police officials, however, had been seeking more ways to decertify officers long before that.
A 2012 news story, for example, noted officers in Virginia fired for criminal convictions and other infractions often kept their state certification. They could move to other jurisdictions in the commonwealth. Top police officials said they needed the state’s help to change the status quo.
From 1999 to early 2021, 83 law enforcement officers and jail staff lost their ability to work in Virginia because of bad conduct. From March 2021 – when the new law took effect – through February 2023, 118 officers were decertified, according to state data published by the law enforcement watchdog group OpenOversightVA.
The majority of the latter group were decertified for false statements during internal affairs investigations, VPM reported. Others were jettisoned for infractions that included use of force violations or falsifying documents.
The stats suggest some of those officers could’ve hung on to their jobs before the new changes.
As then-Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone told me in 2020, if he fired an officer for using excessive force, that person could “go to another agency if that department did not come and look at his personnel records.”
The changes in the decertification law also meant an officer could lose his credentials if he was fired or resigned for actions that compromise his “credibility, integrity, honesty, or other characteristics.”
Another clause in the law dictated officers would be terminated if they didn’t adhere to as-yet-to-be-determined statewide standards. As VPM reported, a work group including representatives from law enforcement and criminal justice advocates developed those policies. It took the group nine months to reach consensus on the standards, which the Criminal Justice Services Board passed in June 2022, five months after Youngkin took office.
The proposed standards require officers to “treat all individuals with dignity and respect” and “uphold the public trust.” The proposal spells out misconduct that can lead to decertification, including making a false arrest, tampering with evidence or a witness, or having sex with someone in custody.
But the regulation and several others relating to training and accountability have spent more than 470 days under review by Youngkin’s secretary of public safety, even though state law required the standards to be passed within 280 days of the statute going into effect.
I asked Macaulay Porter, Youngkin’s spokesperson, about the delay and whether any pending reviews of other laws had taken so long. She didn’t respond to voicemail and email requests.
Law enforcement officials and other interested parties worked diligently to craft the policies. There’s no justifiable reason for the administration’s delays.
At this rate, the phantom washing machine will arrive before the updated decertification standards. The administration’s tortoise-like review is indefensible – and worrisome.