Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) met with black community leaders and students in Charlottesville on Wednesday for a discussion on police use of force after the violent arrest of a black University of Virginia student last month.
The private roundtable conversation, held at Mount Zion First African Baptist Church, centered on the future of the Alcoholic Beverage Control department and its law enforcement role. Last week, McAuliffe announced significant reforms for ABC special agents after three officers took part in the bloody arrest of 20-year-old Martese Johnson. The March 18 altercation, caught in videos and images that spread widely on social media, left Johnson, a junior, requiring 10 stitches.
Meeting for the first time with black leaders and students in Charlottesville, McAuliffe spoke candidly about excessive use of force, police accountability and additional reforms for the ABC, according to five people who took part in the 15-person meeting. Those in attendance included church leaders, teachers, black student representatives, a top-ranking U-Va. administrator and activists from the local NAACP chapter.
“There was necessary dialogue around how severely critical it is that we take on the issues of police brutality and the strained relationship between law enforcement and minority communities,” said Joy Omenyi, an activist with the U-Va. Black Student Alliance.
“He seemed very big on instilling accountability where it is due and ensuring that any changes made from the top down also happen from the bottom up,” Omenyi said.
McAuliffe told the gathering that he was waiting for the results of investigations by the Virginia State Police and state public safety and homeland security secretary that he commissioned on Johnson’s arrest before pursuing specific policy changes related to the ABC. But black leaders said they left the meeting assured that McAuliffe was prepared to dismantle many of the law enforcement powers held by the ABC.
“The governor showed initiative by starting the investigation so quickly and, if necessary, taking the steps needed to at least reform the justice system,” said Aryn Frazier, a Black Student Alliance leader who participated in the discussion.
In several instances, McAuliffe expressed concern with the ABC and questioned the agency’s law enforcement capabilities, those who attended the meeting said, noting that McAuliffe made it clear that the function of the ABC would evolve in coming months.
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said the meeting was aimed at brokering better relationships in Charlottesville among black residents, students and the police.
The governor began the discussion by talking about possibly using body cameras on police officers in the future. McAuliffe also referenced a 2013 incident in which six undercover ABC officers confronted a U-Va. sorority member whom they suspected of being underage and buying alcohol.
The student, Elizabeth Daly, sued ABC and received a $200,000 settlement after it became evident she had bought a case of sparkling water.
“His presence told us that he was going to do something with ABC agents, primarily because it was the last straw,” said M. Rick Turner, president of the Albemarle-Charlottesville chapter of the NAACP. “He assured us that he was going to get to the bottom of this. He was very concerned and very forthright.”
U-Va. Student Council President Abraham Axler said he encouraged McAuliffe to include student voices on a panel reviewing ABC’s law enforcement role. Axler said he and other students at the meeting urged more local police involvement when it came to regulating liquor laws.
State law enforcement officers, Axler said, “will have that level of local connection to build human relationships to fix this problem.”