Some Henrico County leaders are starting the new year working to establish a civilian review board to oversee the county’s police department.
For the past six months, at the request of Supervisor Tyrone Nelson, the Henrico Board of Supervisors has discussed such a review board, with some pushback over whether it’s necessary or even feasible under state law. The county held a public forum and surveyed residents about it.
Civilian review boards are composed of community members who would be authorized to review use-of-force incidents and accusations of misconduct, investigate complaints and take disciplinary action against law enforcement officers.
Nelson is working on the proposal with a goal of April 15 to present it to his colleagues. From there, the following 45 days would be allotted for the supervisors to digest the proposal, share it with residents and hear what they think of it. Come June 1, Nelson hopes to have a final proposal for the Board of Supervisors to vote on.
Nelson first asked for the creation of a board in early June as nationwide racial reckoning unfolded after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
“I was triggered by what was going on nationally, made me think about what we do locally,” he said. “Henrico is a minority-majority [county], so when you’re dealing with a community that is almost half non-white, there are going to be some challenges when you have a police department that is 87% white, mainly male.”
If done correctly, a civilian review board would give the community a voice in law enforcement matters — decisions that have often been shielded from public view as internal affairs, Nelson said. Three of the five county supervisors signaled support for a review board earlier this year.
Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation into law in October to expand the powers of civilian review boards. Sponsored by House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, their two bills allow civilian review boards to subpoena testimony and make binding disciplinary determinations in cases of serious police wrongdoing.
The law sets a deadline of July 1 for localities to set up the review boards.
Supervisor Dan Schmitt, who has spent time with Nelson working on the potential board, said Dec. 15 that he is “very willing” to talk about the issue because it’s important to Nelson as well as Henrico residents.
“I will say this: the need for discussion around this topic exists. The need for in-depth review of this topic is called for,” said Schmitt, who did not respond to a request for comment this week.
Supervisor Pat O’Bannon, who in July questioned whether independent civilian oversight of the police is necessary, said in an interview that she finds the state law to be flawed.
Two “grave concerns” jumped out to O’Bannon. First, she said, if police officers are given binding disciplinary action from a review board, “that officer would be treated differently than those who receive a grievance process.” And second, it could be difficult to create a board that reflects the demographics of the locality it serves.
“What does demographic mean?” asked O’Bannon, questioning whether there would be a need for both left- and right-handed residents on the board and someone to represent the county’s deaf community.
By O’Bannon’s count, the board would need to have at least 27 members to reflect the Henrico community, something she said she’s “not sure it’s possible or feasible.”
Nelson said the county would have to wrestle with figuring out how to make the board reflect the demographic diversity of the county.
The Richmond City Council approved an ordinance in July to create a task force to help establish a new civilian review board. But appointments for such a task force were delayed in November after council members were divided on whether current or former law enforcement officials should be included.
Virginia’s legislation bars active law enforcement officers or their family members from serving on civilian review boards.
“CRBs are not a fix-all for everything. They do not stop police shootings. Ultimately, again ... they give citizens a recourse. They give citizens a place that they can go,” Nelson said during the Dec. 15 meeting.
The Rev. Marvin Gilliam Jr., a Church Hill-area pastor who lives in Henrico’s Varina District, said review boards are important because they provide additional accountability for police officers.
“I think transparency breeds trust, so the more accountable and more transparent processes can be, the more trust can be built between communities that have distrust with law enforcement,” Gilliam said. .
Gilliam, 38, grew up in Chesterfield County and has lived in Varina for the past three years. He said he and the police have had a few interactions, some of which were not so pleasant.
For Gilliam, while the review board would work to oversee the police department, it would also offer opportunities for community members to come together and listen to one another. Having a racially diverse community board, made up of Black, Latino, Asian, Indian and white residents, can help begin the healing process, Gilliam said.
“I think there’s this disconnect, a cultural disconnect, between the relationship of some communities and police,” he said. “For Black and brown people, it’s a certain age where you have to have a talk with young people and say, ‘Hey, if you have an interaction with a police officer, this is how you need to behave.’
“That’s not something that happens in other households in majority culture houses ... because inherently they believe the police is on their side,” he added.
Taking the time to listen to one another, to hear what’s happening from all perspectives and stepping outside of one’s own echo chamber “is so vital. It is one of the pieces we are missing,” Gilliam said. “Everyone is in their own bubble. We don’t take the time to just ... listen to the perspectives of someone else.”