The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With first veto, Youngkin overrules bill on Arlington policing oversight

Esoteric hiring measure had received bipartisan support

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) heads a meeting with parents at a grocery store in Alexandria on Feb. 3. (Robb Hill for The Washington Post)
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RICHMOND — Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) on Tuesday issued his first veto since taking office, blocking part of an effort by one of the most liberal jurisdictions in Virginia to ramp up independent accountability of its police force.

The bill he vetoed would have allowed the Arlington County Board, rather than the county manager, to hire an auditor to investigate possible police misconduct. The measure received bipartisan support, passing the GOP-controlled House of Delegates on a 65-to-35 vote.

Yet Youngkin appeared to tie the bill — an esoteric but noteworthy move that would have given that auditor more independence — to much broader debates over how local governments should scrutinize police.

“The best way to ensure that any bad actors within law enforcement are held accountable is to stand up for law enforcement, not tear them down or subject them to politically-motivated inquiries,” Youngkin said in a statement Tuesday.

Arlington votes to create a civilian police oversight board

Arlington will still be able to hire an independent policing auditor, who will work with a new civilian panel to look into officers accused of misconduct. But that individual will instead report to the county manager, who is also responsible for hiring the police chief and overseeing law enforcement in the Northern Virginia suburb.

Arlington County Board Chair Katie Cristol (D) said such a chain of command will weaken the role of the auditor. The position, like the civilian panel, had been judiciously designed following months of community input, she said.

“The independence of our independent policing auditor … is integral to the very carefully crafted ordinance we put together,” Cristol added.

Arlington lawmakers had voted in July to create a civilian oversight board, one of several efforts related to justice and policing in response to widespread racial justice demonstrations in 2020. Like other jurisdictions around the country that have taken that step, activists and elected officials engaged in exhaustive debates about what powers should rest with the board and the auditor.

The board ultimately settled on a model on par with other oversight bodies in Northern Virginia: Seven county residents are currently being selected for the panel, which will also include two nonvoting members with law enforcement experience. Oversight panel members will be able to work with the auditor to request subpoenas of police and review investigations of individual officers.

In his explanation for the veto, Youngkin appeared to criticize a lack of set qualifications for the “politically-appointed” auditor role, in addition to the fact that no current law enforcement officials would have voting power on the oversight panel. He also claimed that the auditor could be given the ability to discipline and fire officers, making them “judge, jury and executioner.”

But Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), who sponsored the bill, said the auditor has no such disciplinary powers. Youngkin’s explanation, he said, made him question whether the governor was offering his input on the intended effects of the bill or the merits of civilian oversight of police more generally.

“That’s what’s so puzzling, that you would choose this bill to veto,” he said. “It’s not about local government. It’s not about governing. It’s about a national profile and the fact that this would be seen as condoning civilian oversight boards.”

The Arlington County Democratic Committee accused Youngkin of stoking partisan divisions, writing on Twitter: “There is no reason to play politics with a common-sense measure that passed the GOP controlled House.”

When communities try to hold police accountable, law enforcement fights back

Because Virginia follows the 19th-century policy known as the Dillon Rule, localities must seek special permission from the General Assembly for any powers that are not explicitly afforded to them.

Arlington is unique among Virginia counties in that it relies on a county manager plan of government, with no county executive and a county bureaucracy that almost entirely reports to the county manager. Under its charter, the board must receive explicit permission from the state to hire anyone directly.

Hope said the legislation was a question of local control, not of policing oversight. His bill would have been nearly identical, he said, if the county lawmakers had wanted to hire their own librarian.

“Even though this was a position for a civilian oversight board, it wasn’t about the civilian oversight board,” Hope said. “It was just a function of Arlington needing this express approval to hire for this position.”

Cristol, the board chair, said the veto was an unfortunate cap to more than a year of local discussions on a model that had been conscientiously designed.

“This community worked so hard and put so much care into this,” she said, “and the governor destabilized one of the most important parts of it with very little care or attention.”

Rachel Weiner in Washington contributed to this report.

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