HAMPTON ROADS, Va. – A criminal justice reform bill is on its way to the governor’s desk. Lawmakers recently passed legislation allowing localities to create a civilian panel to oversee law enforcement.
Herb Jones of New Kent County believes it’s a good idea.
“I think a civilian overview board, who pays their salaries, is absolutely necessary,” Jones said.
Jones is a respected business owner, a community leader and a retired colonel from the Army.
During his years in combat, he said he’s never had a gun pulled on him, but as a civilian he said police have done so twice for unjust reasons. One time occurred while he was walking in an office building, and another while he was driving.
“I got stopped, and the officer pulled me out of the car and pointed a gun at my head,” Jones said. “Another time, I was just elected treasurer for New Kent County and as I was moving some of my stuff into my officer, I had just taken a load of stuff from my car to my officer and when I came back out, there was a police officer with a gun out of his holster, aimed at me, because he thought I was breaking into the county building. I had on a shirt and tie; I had on a coat and tie.”
Jones believes he was racially profiled by police in those instances and several others.
“Had my pigmentation been a little bit different, I don’t think it would have turned out that way,” he said. “I don’t have enough fingers to count the number of times I’ve been pulled over for no other reason.”
If signed into law, the board would have investigative, subpoena and disciplinary power.
The bill would also allow a retired law enforcement officer to serve in an advisory role to oversee the board.
Criminal justice reform advocates, including WJCC Coalition for Community Justice co-founder Jessica Sapalio, say it would add a needed layer of accountability.
“I think this is a really important step, both in preventing large tragedies like we hear about in the news, but also in addressing current issues such as unequal treatment and profiling in police that we know go on every day,” said Sapalio. “I think this is an important opportunity for our police departments to demonstrate their commitment to accountability, their desire to eliminate police misconduct.”
Clay Messick is an NPD officer and president for the department’s union Norfolk Police Union IBPO Local 412. He does not believe Black Americans are being unjustly pulled over.
“Nine times out of 10, I don’t know who I’m pulling over until I get up until that window,” he said. “We have to have probable cause to pull someone over."
Messick said while the Norfolk Police Department is in favor of transparency, the proposed oversight board is a bit of an overreach.
“We get judged all the way from our supervisor to our lieutenants our captains, up to our chiefs,” he said.
Messick believes putting the power in civilians’ hands is the wrong move.
“You’re going to have a committee of citizens that have no clue what a daily police officer goes through, deciding what they did right or wrong in the heat of the moment and the split-second decisions we have to make,” Messick said. “If you’re not trained, if you haven’t been in those situations, that’s all your perception. You’re being judged by perception.”
“It will be very important that the civilian oversight boards are well-trained in policing policies, techniques,” she said. “They will have to go through an extensive training, so they can make informed decisions.”
Training or not, Herb Jones said police misconduct or violence boils down to knowing what’s right and wrong.
“You didn’t need training in police procedures to know what happened to George Floyd was wrong,” he said. “You didn’t need training in police procedures to know what happened to Rodney King was wrong.”
The bill is on its way to Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Virginia). Once he gets it, he’ll have a week to sign it into law. There’s no word yet on if he will but a spokesperson for his administration said, “he will carefully review it when it reaches his desk, as he does all legislation.”