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Does an Election Mean Civilian Review of Sheriff's Offices?


House and Senate Democrats are united about civilian oversight of police departments.

But they’re divided over whether sheriff’s offices should be subjected to new review boards that can subpoena documents and fire deputies engaged in wrongdoing. 

In most of Virginia, the local law-enforcement agency is the sheriff’s office. So if lawmakers move forward with the Senate’s approach on civilian review boards, they won’t get any new oversight.

John Jones at the Virginia Sheriffs Association says sheriffs already have civilian oversight. “Sheriffs as elected constitutional officers are constantly under review," Jones says, "and we think the election is the ultimate citizen review board.”

But that election comes once every four years, and in many cases sheriffs run unopposed. Delegate Jeff Bourne says he’s not sure that’s the same kind of civilian review outlined in the House version of the bill.  “I wonder how and why an aggrieved party should have to wait or a locality should have to wait if in year one of a term something goes terribly wrong with one of the sheriffs or their deputies. Why should you have to wait for four years until the election to cast a vote either for or against the incumbent,” Bourne argues.

House and Senate Democrats are at an impasse on the issue. House members are pushing to include sheriff’s offices in civilian review boards and senators are insisting that they be excluded. Ultimately a compromise is likely to be struck in a conference committee that’s not open to the public or the press.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.