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Panel Reviewing ABC Agent Powers Holds 1st Meeting

Posted: Updated: May 18, 2015 09:58 AM
RICHMOND, Va. (WVIR) - A panel appointed by Governor Terry McAuliffe to examine the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control's (ABC) law enforcement activities held its first meeting Monday. Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran chaired the 20-member review panel at the state capitol.

Gov. McAuliffe created the panel after ABC agents arrested University of Virginia student Martese Johnson in March. Johnson needed 10 stitches to close a gash on his head.  Photos and video of the arrest were widely distributed on social media.  The arrest led the governor to call for mandatory changes at the ABC. 

The review panel is comprised of students, restaurant owners, law enforcement leaders and lawmakers. During their first meeting, they discussed the training, structure, and duties of ABC agents.  The governor has mandated changes like more training, improved communication between special agents and local police departments, and structural oversight. 

ABC Chief Operating Officer Travis Hill says he wants more diversity among the special agents and fewer undercover agents. "There will be times when we need to enforce, as it should be done, in a professional manner and we need to do so keeping in line with the community expectations," he stated.

ABC leaders claim more than 85 percent of the 124 agents have prior law enforcement training and experience, plus months more when they join the force. 

However, panel members have concerns.

"How is the tone established of the actual application of the training, the force, when force is necessary, when it's not?" asked Harrisonburg Mayor Christopher Jones.

“Once you've been on the force, like three or five years or something, are you ever assessed again?" asked UVA Student Council President Abraham Axler.

The 124 sworn special agents have already been ordered by Gov. McAuliffe to complete what amounts to about an extra 80 hours of training. The McAuliffe administration wants the agents to have more experience working in cultural diversity, and with people aged 18 to 25.

The panel will look beyond short-term solutions and determine if the ABC should maintain its arresting authority at all. The panel will continue to meet until it comes up with a series of recommendations for the ABC. Those recommendations are due to the governor by November 1.

Along with establishing the review panel, McAuliffe ordered a state police investigation and retraining of ABC agents. Virginia State Police have concluded the criminal investigation looking into Martese Johnson's arrest and the report has been turned over to Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman. The report has not been released publicly yet. 

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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