Spurred by the violent arrest of a black college student by white Alcoholic Beverage Control police officers, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order Wednesday that aims to reform the state agency’s law enforcement arm.
The executive order, effective immediately, requires that by Sept. 1 all ABC special agents be retrained in the use of force and in cultural diversity and interaction with young people. It also gives universities and local police departments more oversight of ABC special agents assigned to college towns, “with the goal of improving collaboration, communication and delineation of expectations regarding enforcement activities performed by ABC special agents in these communities.”
The order from McAuliffe (D) came about a week after University of Virginia junior Martese Johnson was bloodied in an altercation with white ABC special agents in Charlottesville during the waning hours of St. Patrick’s Day revels. Johnson, 20, received 10 stitches to his head after the arrest, which followed his unsuccessful attempt to enter an Irish bar adjacent to campus.
The incident, captured in videos and images that were shared widely via social media, roiled the bucolic campus of the state’s flagship university and exposed long-simmering racial tensions. It also sparked scrutiny of Virginia ABC, which has more than 120 law enforcement agents across the commonwealth.
Virginia ABC spokeswoman Kathleen Shaw said that the agency “will certainly implement the Governor’s executive order.”
Shaw noted that Ryant Washington, a former Fluvanna County sheriff who is the ABC policy adviser for law enforcement, had already started working on “improvements in training and other areas for the Enforcement division and is developing additional steps to meet the requirements” of the order.
Johnson’s arrest was the second high-profile incident involving ABC officers in Charlottesville in the past two years. In the spring of 2013, a white U-Va. sorority member was confronted by six undercover ABC agents, at least one of them with gun drawn, in a grocery store parking lot. The agents had suspected the 20-year-old of making an underage purchase of alcohol, but it later became evident that the student, Elizabeth Daly, had bought only a case of sparkling water. Daly sued ABC and received a $200,000 settlement.
Daly’s arrest came as ABC agents more aggressively patrolled around the U-Va. campus, at times targeting fraternity parties and underage drinking.
Johnson’s arrest occurred amid enforcement centered on the holiday, though ABC officials said the agency made nine arrests statewide between the weekend before the festivities through that night.
Johnson is to appear in court Thursday on charges of misdemeanor profane swearing and/or public intoxication and obstruction of justice. He is expected to plead not guilty, according to attorney Daniel Watkins.
U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan has said that she wanted ABC to help crack down on those who sell alcohol to minors near campus and was frustrated that ABC agents were going after underage student drinkers, which is most often left to local law enforcement agencies.
McAuliffe’s order gives local police the opportunity to determine how best to employ the ABC agents working in close proximity to college students through official agreements. Capt. Gary Pleasants, of the Charlottesville Police Department, said the department currently does not have any agreements with ABC agents, who until now operated independently of local police.
McAuliffe wrote Wednesday that the executive order will ensure that the ABC “promotes and protects the public trust.” In the immediate aftermath of Johnson’s arrest, McAuliffe commissioned a review of the incident.
“Recent events involving special agents of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) in Charlottesville have underscored longstanding concerns about the agency’s Bureau of Law Enforcement and exposed the need for more extensive training and oversight,” McAuliffe wrote. “While we must await results from the investigations by Virginia State Police and the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney in Charlottesville before drawing conclusions about that particular incident, it is not too soon to take proactive steps to improve ABC’s Bureau of Law Enforcement.”
On Wednesday, Abraham Axler, U-Va.’s student council president-elect, announced a proposed resolution to dissolve ABC’s criminal law enforcement powers.
“They should be regulating alcohol at the point of sale,” Axler said. “They should not be acting like cowboys.”
Aryn Frazier, a campus activist with the Black Student Alliance who helped draft the resolution, said that ABC contributes to a climate of “over-policing” in Charlottesville. “I think that for a lot of people, getting rid of the ABC’s law enforcement capabilities is the most obvious move right now,” Frazier said.
Virginia Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) praised the substance of McAuliffe’s order but noted that the reforms come before the investigation is complete. “We don’t even know what happened,” said Albo, a U-Va. alumnus. “If this kid was really wasted and acting unruly and resisting arrest, that’s one thing. The ABC agents might have acted totally appropriately.”
But he said that if Johnson acted politely and was still arrested, the ABC officers “should be fired, and the state’s going to get sued.”
State Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover) called the governor’s actions “reasonable steps” and in particular welcomed improved cooperation between the ABC and local police or sheriffs.
McDougle said that Johnson’s arrest “heightened the concern” that more changes could be needed beyond those made after the Daly case but that he wouldn’t want to act before the investigation is complete.
Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta), said the latest incident only strengthens his belief that the legislature’s research arm should study the law enforcement authority of various state agencies, from the ABC to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
“I’m still convinced we need to look at law enforcement for these individual agencies in general,” he said. “The governor is taking a good step, but we probably need to have something a little bit more comprehensive.”
Portnoy reported from Richmond.