Nearly half of the respondents to a county survey say they support the idea of a civilian review board for the Henrico Division of Police, but members of the Board of Supervisors were at odds over the idea Tuesday.
While county officials said they are waiting for the Virginia General Assembly to take up potential police reforms in a special session next month, Supervisor Tyrone Nelson urged the board in Tuesday’s meeting to begin discussing the proposal, which he made nearly two months ago.
Nelson has said in interviews that he wants the board to be independent of law enforcement and vested with the authority to investigate complaints against officers. Supervisor Pat O’Bannon on Tuesday questioned whether independent civilian oversight of the police is necessary.
O’Bannon, one of three Republicans on the five-member board, said she isn’t sure if there is a policing problem the county needs to solve.
“I think we should look into it differently. It doesn’t have to be a citizen review board. It could be a new program in the division of police,” she said. “Don’t start with a perceived solution.”
The remaining board members said more time is needed for input and public discussion.
Nelson’s proposal comes as elected leaders across the nation seek reforms targeting systemic racism and police brutality following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and ensuing civic unrest.
Henrico’s chief prosecutor last month announced plans to hire a deputy to oversee complaints against police. On Monday, the Richmond City Council agreed on preliminary steps to create its own civilian review board and new protocols for police responding to people experiencing a mental health crisis.
Nearly half of the 300 respondents to Henrico’s poll expressed support for creating a review panel, although the survey did not explicitly ask whether people backed the idea, according to a presentation by a county auditor Tuesday. About a quarter of the respondents dissented. The remaining respondents (28%) expressed no definitive opinion, instead asking questions or providing suggestions.
The results were based on comments submitted between June 29 and July 21.
In the emails supporting its creation, respondents said it would help build trust between police and the public, particularly the Black community. Many opponents questioned its need, saying it would be politically motivated, and that civilians without law enforcement experience should not pass judgment on police.
But Nelson said the systemic racism and police misconduct that protesters and activists are speaking to resonates with some county residents, particularly those who have had poor experiences with law enforcement.
“As a Black person, there’s no way I’m going to sleep at night thinking about this stuff,” he said. “How am I going to sit here as an elected official when I have an opportunity to be a voice for people who have not always felt like they have a voice?”
Nelson and Frank Thornton, who are Democrats and the board’s only African Americans, said they took issue with some opposition to the idea. Thornton said some of the language appeared to be “coded” racism. Nelson said he felt detractors were writing off the idea, saying he was “anti-cop.” He dismissed the sentiment.
Supervisor Dan Schmitt did not express an opinion about the idea of an independent civilian review board. He said the discussion so far is raising questions that still need answers, noting that more than a quarter of the respondents did not explicitly say whether they support the idea. He noted that constituents are also contacting him daily by phone or text message to weigh in on the matter.
Like other localities in Virginia, Henrico is able to keep complaints against the police and investigations into them secret because of exemptions in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
According to a report on the county’s website, the police department’s internal affairs division investigated 120 complaints; only two of the complaints were deemed justified, while another 30 were “sustained,” meaning that evidence found supported the complainant’s allegations.
With one investigation still pending, the remaining 89 cases were dismissed with investigators clearing officers or determining there was not enough evidence to sustain the complaint.
In response to a request from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Henrico police earlier this month declined to disclose copies of the complaints and records of how they were resolved.
In late June, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus rolled out a police reform platform calling for localities to adopt civilian review boards for their police departments, with the authority to subpoena officers and departments for records.
Whatever might happen in the General Assembly’s special session next month, Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the chairman of the Black Caucus, said he wants localities in rural and suburban areas to consider adopting the boards.
“I do have a fear that some of the localities that need it the most won’t craft a civilian review board,” he said. “It’s not just a city challenge. This is an opportunity for all localities to step up and rethink policing.”
Residents can continue submitting comments to the county at civilian firstname.lastname@example.org. The county will hold a public hearing and another work session on the subject next month.