UVA student's violent arrest prompts reforms in training for ABC officers

Gov. Terry McAuliffe said 'longstanding concerns' about Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control tactics warranted additional training and oversight ahead of a formal investigation into the violent arrest of Martese Johnson.

Andrew Shurtleff/The Daily Progress/AP
Virginia student Martese Johnson (l.) listens as his lawyer Daniel Waktins (r.) makes a statement during a press conference, March 19, on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, Va. Johnson was bloodied during an arrest, March 18, about 1 a.m. by State Alcoholic Beverage Control agents outside Trinity Irish Pub on the Corner near the University of Virginia.

As investigators continued to probe whether Virginia’s alcohol control agents used excessive force when arresting University of Virginia student Martese Johnson last week, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) took steps Wednesday to improve their training and oversight.

According to Governor McAuliffe’s Executive Order 40:

  • All special agents in the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) are to be retrained by Sept. 1. The training will cover use of force, cultural diversity, interaction with youth, and community policing.
  • The ABC Bureau of Law Enforcement will report directly to the chief operating officer of the department.
  • The secretary of public safety and homeland security will convene an expert review panel representing various stakeholders, to examine the structure, mission, policies, and training of ABC. It will complete its report by Nov. 1.
  • ABC’s law enforcement bureau will immediately update or enter into agreements with law enforcement agencies serving communities with state institutions of higher education, to improve communication and collaboration.

The order acknowledges that concerns about ABC's law enforcement had been raised before the arrest in which Mr. Johnson's head was injured, sparking protests and accusations of racial bias. Johnson appeared in court this morning where he requested a continuance until the investigation is concluded on May 28, according to a spokeswoman for Johnson's attorney.

McAuliffe cites "a responsibility to ensure that agencies charged with public safety have the training, resources and oversight they need to do their jobs professionally and in a way that promotes and protects the public trust." 

Johnson’s lawyer, Daniel Watkins, responded Wednesday with a written statement:

The measures the Governor has taken in the executive order today illustrate that we all share a common belief: it is important for all law enforcement agencies to act within the bounds of the law. Increased training, transparency, and accountability are good for law enforcement as well as the communities they serve.

ABC spokeswoman Kathleen Shaw also replied Wednesday to the Monitor’s request for comment: “Virginia ABC’s Policy Advisor for Law Enforcement Ryant Washington has already begun work to implement strategic improvements in training and other areas for the Enforcement division and is developing additional steps to meet the requirements outlined in the Governor’s Executive Order 40,” she wrote in an e-mail.

The ABC Bureau of Law Enforcement has about 130 sworn agents, all of whom are certified police officers. Approximately 30 percent of their activity is focused on underage access to alcohol and tobacco, citizen complaints of violations, establishments serving too much alcohol to patrons, and other investigations into business practices.

ABC is also responsible for regulatory compliance such as annual inspection of more than 16,000 licensed establishments.

In addition to police training, new ABC agents undergo more than 120 hours of in-house training and 480 hours of supervised field training, well in excess of what’s required by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, according to a policy statement supplied by Ms. Shaw. In addition, they receive refresher training in about 15 areas, including “bias based policing and cultural diversity,” “de-escalation and disengagement,” and, for supervisors, “specialized constitutional training.”

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