On Tuesday evening, the University of Virginia community erupted in outrage over news that Martese Johnson, a young black man, was brutally beaten by cops for using a fake ID. But in addition to concerns over yet another incident of racially charged police brutality, there’s another fact about this incident that raises new troubling questions: The officers who beat and arrested Johnson were agents with the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
The agency is known for regulating the alcohol industry in the state, and for operating the government-run stores that sell liquor. The Charlottesville incident and another less than two years before have raised the profile of another lesser-known function of the agency: policing alcohol crimes.
“I guess part of what’s a little bit surprising is I think most of us are just learning how many of [these agents] there are in college towns,” Virginia Del. Marcus Simon (D) told ThinkProgress. “I think most of us would be surprised that there are ABC officers in college towns that hang out outside of bars waiting for folks to get in.”
These agents have the power to arrest, and thus retain the same police powers as any other agents. They carry guns. They can use force. And as of last year, they wear uniforms. ABC agents undertook another controversial arrest in 2013, when several agents jumped another University of Virginia student walking out of a grocery store with sparkling water they mistook for beer. At that time, they were undercover and pulled a gun on Elizabeth Daly and her friends.
ABC immediately admitted that the agents had violated department policy, settled a lawsuit by the student for more than $200,000, and changed policy so that ABC agents had to wear uniforms. But the incident raised broader questions from politicians of every political leaning about why ABC had its own officers anyway.
“The idea that we need to have uniformed ABC agents sort of trolling the universities to look for people being turned away from restaurants seems ridiculous to me,” Simon said.
State Sen. Creigh Deeds (D) introduced a bill to consolidate this enforcement and all other such independent agencies with state police. And months later, libertarian gubernatorial candidate Robert Sarvis endorsed a similar proposal to move ABC’s enforcement powers to local jurisdictions. Neither proposal succeeded. Nor did another by Del. Ben Cline (R) in 2014 to consolidate ABC officers with state police.
Today, many lawmakers still know very little about ABC’s enforcement powers even work.
“One of the things that I’m considering doing is putting a letter to secretary [Brian] Moran, the secretary of public safety to ask them, how do these guys justify their existence? Can you give me some statistics on the good that they do? Is there any good?” said Simon. “If I was arrested every time I was 20 years old trying to sneak past a bouncer in a bar, I would’ve spent most of my college years in jail and not a classroom.”
Simon railed against the ABC’s enforcement powers in a Facebook post Wednesday, saying, “When we have that many police officers in uniform looking to justify their existence and their presence, bad things are bound to happen.”
State Sen. John Edwards (D), a former federal prosecutor, said he would also like to see the ABC’s enforcement powers reformed, although he wasn’t sure what form it would take. “This raises serious questions about the proper training and the leadership on enforcement at ABC,” Edwards told ThinkProgress. “Even if you have the power to arrest that doesn’t mean you have the power to beat them up.”
News reports in 2013 suggested ABC officers have abused their law enforcement powers without repercussions. An investigation of the agency by the Daily Progress found that an officer who was brought into the agency to reform its use-of-force policies was “moved to an administrative job after agents rebelled against his efforts to standardize practices and promote accountability.”
In other instances uncovered by the newspaper, a special investigator had violated policy by tapping into the state’s criminal records database for personal use and kept her job, and the agency’s four highest-ranking officials used agency cars to commute to and from work in violation of agency policy.
“As regular police, the ABC agents should be getting the same mandatory training about cultural competence and implicit bias as other officers,” said the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga. “It would be interesting to see if they are.”