Last night the Virginia Beach City Council voted 10-0 to create a citizen review board to investigate complaints against the police. The board will have the power to ask the circuit court to issue subpoenas for witnesses and documents.

"This is one of the most important pieces of legislation that we have voted on this year," Councilmember Sabrina Wooten said. "This legislation promotes transparency between our community and the police department. It also promotes unity and trust in our community."

A task force assembled by the council recommended the review board after spending hundreds of hours reviewing the issue.

The vote comes at the end of a tumultuous year which saw decisions, reversals, protest and a police-involved shooting. In early March the council voted against giving subpoena powers to its existing Investigation Review Panel. Then on March 26 Donovon Lynch, 25, was fatally shot by a Virginia Beach police officer at the Oceanfront. 

Actvists protested in the months that followed. In October Pharell Williams, Lynch's cousin, canceled the Something in the Water music festival. He blamed the city's "toxic energy." Local fans said the cause was systemic racism.

The law puts clear limits on the power of the board.

The board can "receive, investigate, and issue findings on complaints from civilians regarding the conduct of sworn members of the Police Department" according to its language. It does not have the power to punish police officers.

Its subpoena power is curtailed as well. It may ask a court for a subpoena only after making "a good faith effort" to obtain documents and witness testimony voluntarily. The subject of the subpoena can appeal to the court as well, asking for them to quash it.

If the board wants to subpoena documents or witnesses involving a completed Internal Affairs investigation there are other hurdles. A legal review is required along with a "super majority" vote where 8 out of the 11 board members agree to proceed. 

Several council members said the new law had potential flaws. The City Manager has the power to pick a "Board Coordinator," which might compromise the board's independence. The board also lacks its own independent legal counsel.

"I'd be in favor of the board hiring the coordinator," said Councilmember John Moss. "Obviously, we're not going to do that tonight. But I think that ought to be one of the first technical corrections, just like we didn't have a Bill of Rights in the initial adoption of the Constitution, but it's the first law they fixed."  

"Independence means independence, and we haven't quite achieved it," he added.

Still, the vote last night was a moment of agreement for people who'd been political rivals.

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step," said Mayor Bobby Dyer, who voted for the measure. Councilmember Aaron Rouse, who ran in 2020 to unseat Dyer as mayor, voiced a similar sentiment, and also voted for the proposal.

"It's the right thing for our citizens," Rouse said. "It's the right thing to help our families out... who's been affected by that terrible night on March 26. And it's the right thing to do for our city."