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COLUMN — Transparency is needed from the parole board

As Sen. Mark Obenshain said last week during the Senate session, something is foul at the Virginia Parole Board, even beyond the situation surrounding Vincent Martin.

We now know of at least six other instances of legal and procedural violations at the Virginia Parole Board. Unfortunately, we have limited information about what these violations are. Reporters submitted FOIA requests for the reports and were given completely redacted pages yet again.

When Republican leaders asked for the files, they were given watered down summaries — and to date, the Office of the State Inspector General (OSIG) has refused to release the full reports. Even the watered down summaries make it clear that the board has not been contacting victims and families and has been violating other procedures as well.

The law is clear — the reports must be turned over.

The fact that OSIG is working with the governor’s office to keep these reports under wraps speaks to the severity of the issues contained therein. Republicans have gone through proper channels and have been turned away. We will go to court if we must. Not only will we work to maintain the independence of OSIG but ensure that Virginians know what’s going on at the parole board.

Republicans know that law enforcement isn’t perfect, and Virginia needs to enact certain reforms. But any reforms need to be mixed with a dose of common sense. Unfortunately, House Democrats refused to listen and instead decided to listen to only the most vocal, far-left members of their base.

Much of their legislation is overly harsh to the good men and women of law enforcement and will make their jobs much more difficult. Given that, Republicans have offered measured approaches to the areas garnering the most attention by the media.

Their reform package, in contrast to much of what we saw from the Senate, went further than common sense, thoughtful reform. Our first priority is to get bad law enforcement officers off the force and keep them from jumping from one department to another to avoid being fired.

Republicans proposed decertification for any officer fired for abuse of power or dishonesty (HB5133). Doing so would give sheriffs and police chiefs the power to permanently remove bad actors.

Unfortunately, House Democrats refused to listen to common sense and wanted to immediately ban any police officer who was fired for any reason — including minor uniform infractions — not just abuse of power or dishonesty.

Bad law enforcement officers should be removed, but a deputy who gets fired because he says he’s going to run against the sheriff shouldn’t be permanently kicked out of law enforcement.

In response to George Floyd’s death, many wanted to see duty to intervene when an officer’s colleague is using excessive force. Republicans introduced legislation that would have accomplished this (HB5134), but it was never given a hearing.

House Democrats ultimately passed their version of duty to intervene that goes too far in criminalizing officers who are deemed to have failed to intervene. Similar to the Senate version, Republican’s supported going through the decertification process in these instances.

The use of body cameras was also an area Republicans proposed a measured approach (HB5135). This would have directed law enforcement agencies to develop a written policy for when the cameras needed to be activated. The bill was never heard.

Republicans put forth legislation to implement de-escalation training (HB5128). This would have directed law enforcement agencies to establish policies for de-escalation techniques, including for the use of force continuum and neck restraints. The bill never received a hearing.

Republicans also supported common sense reforms of things like neck restraints and no-knock warrants. Both should be used rarely, and only in true emergency situations. For example, an officer stuck in a life-or-death struggle on the side of a road shouldn’t become a felon for using a neck restraint. Police need the element of surprise when moving in to arrest certain suspected and known criminals, such as an armed and dangerous fugitives or child sex trafficker.

Yet House Democrats again refused to even consider these common sense exceptions, instead going for complete bans that would penalize the use of these tactics even in life-or-death emergencies.

Other issues like civilian oversight boards could be beneficial, provided they’re implemented with common sense. For a small town police department with one or two officers, the oversight board would be larger than the entire force. In situations like this, review boards should be optional — a position supported by Republicans.

Republicans also insisted that review boards include representatives who have some law enforcement experience — or training for those members who don’t. Yet House Democrats refused to consider this common sense idea and pushed on to create boards where it’s possible that no member has ever even ridden in a police cruiser.

An issue not discussed by Democrats is the impact collective bargaining and public sector unions have on shielding bad actors in law enforcement. Republicans repeatedly tried to have an honest discussion about reforms to recently passed legislation, but debate was constantly shut down. 

Two bills introduced by Republicans related to collective bargaining (HB5021 & HB5071) never received hearings.

Earlier this week, Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn was found to be in violation of the state’s FOIA laws regarding her midnight raid on the Old House Chamber.

The fact that a private citizen had to take this matter to court shows just how much Democrats want to hide their actions from the public. The plaintiff simply wanted to know how much money the speaker spent on her midnight raid. Her office said there were no documents related to the event.

A judge in Richmond was incredulous at the claim. How can a state official spend $83,000 and not generate any paperwork? The speaker’s chief of staff attempted to cast the request for information as a plot to object to her actions. In reality, it was a simple request for information. Once again, we see that Democrats have chosen to be the party of obfuscation, not transparency.

Del. C. Matthew Fariss represents Buckingham in the Virginia House of Delegates. His email address is DelMFariss@house.virginia.gov.