by Dick Hall-Sizemore
In October, amidst much fanfare, Governor Youngkin announced Operation Bold Blue Line. In the words of the Governor’s press release, this initiative is “a series of concrete actions to reduce homicides, shootings, and violent crime.”
I had some questions and wanted some details on the proposal. I posed these questions to the Governor’s press office. Crickets. I then posed them to the office of the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security. I got an acknowledgement and a pledge to provide the information I had requested. Time marched on and no answers, just requests for more time to prepare the response. Finally, I was told that my inquiry was being bumped to the Governor’s press office. Fortunately, someone in that office did respond and answer my questions.
After doing some research and reading the responses to my questions, I have to say that I am underwhelmed by this initiative.
Following are the elements of Operation Bold Blue Line, as set out in the press release, along with my questions and the answers provided by the Governor’s press office.
Violence intervention efforts–$13 million for new group violence intervention efforts. This is not new money. Rather, it is a rebranding of appropriations for new programs established by the 2022 General Assembly. Specifically, the sources of the funding are Operation Cease Fire and the Firearm Violence and Prevention Intervention funds. (See Item 408#5c in the 2022 budget conference report.) A more recent press release from the Governor bumped up the amount to $20 million. The sources of the “additional” funding were Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention grants, sexual assault programs grants, and federal COVID funding, all of which would have been awarded without the new branding.
Wage compression—Citing vacancy rates in city police departments, the State Police, and sheriffs’ departments, the Governor announced “a comprehensive plan to fix wage compression issues.” Based on this statement, one might expect the governor to propose funding for localities to address wage compression. However, the Governor proposed funding to address wage compression only for law-enforcement officers supported by state funding. This did include local sheriffs’ deputies, but not police officers in counties, cities, and towns. The $17.7 million proposed for deputies, Marine Resource officers, and State Police troopers is a decent amount, but hardly “a comprehensive plan.”
Community policing—According to the press release, the plan includes an increase in funding for “cities and counties with community policing and violence reduction tactics” with the partnering communities being prohibited from “defunding” their police departments. No additional funding was included for the Dept. of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) for such purpose. (That agency is the one that usually handles criminal justice grants to localities.)
Police office recruitment—In his announcement, the Governor pledged to “work to recruit the finest officers from Virginia and across the Nation, as well.” To assist in this effort, he announced a $30 million “nationwide and homegrown recruitment effort.” I asked for some details on how this effort by the state to recruit law-enforcement officers for localities was going to work. For example, was the state going to recruit out-of-state people to fill law-enforcement positions in specific Virginia cities and counties? The answer from the Governor’s office was that the $30 million would not be used to recruit individuals for specific positions, but DCJS would distribute the funds to localities to “pay sign-on bonuses for new hires and relocation costs”, as well as conduct a marketing campaign. That marketing campaign would consist of providing “information about the variety of types, locations, and compensation available for the entire Commonwealth.” In other words, the intent is for DCJS to serve as a clearinghouse for law-enforcement jobs around the state.
In its effort to recruit persons from out of state for Virginia law-enforcement positions, the Commonwealth will be facing efforts by other states to do the same thing.
The Governor did include $30 million in his budget proposals for DCJS for this initiative. That seems like a lot of money to be allocated to pay sign-on bonuses and relocation costs when no analysis has been made as to how much would be needed. I expect that the analysts for the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees have already targeted this proposal for a substantial reduction.
Fast-track training—Current law and regulations require all applicants for a law-enforcement position to complete minimum training standards. This training usually requires approximately 24 weeks to complete. To attract applicants from out of state, the Governor is proposing to establish an accelerated 8-week training course for applicants with previous law-enforcement experience. When asked for more details about these “Option 5 Academies,” the Governor’s office told me, “If a hiring Virginia law enforcement agency brings in an out-of-state law enforcement officer with at least three years of law enforcement experience and the candidate is qualified (after a DCJS review of their previous law enforcement training) they would qualify for this Option 5. ” It is contemplated that the “Option 5 Academies will consolidate the training requirements into six to eight weeks.”
This sounds reasonable. There is no need to require an experienced law-enforcement officer coming in from out of state to undergo training that brand new officers must take. In fact, it is so reasonable that the law already provides for it. Section 9.1-116 of the Code of Virginia authorizes DCJS to exempt anyone with previous law-enforcement training and experience “from the mandatory attendance of any or all courses which are required for the successful completion of the compulsory minimum training standards established by the Board.” I asked the Governor’s office, “With this flexibility [in Sec. 9.1-116] already provided, what advantage would the establishment of Option 5 provide?” I have not gotten a response.
Dual enrollment—According to the press release, “Operation Bold Blue Line will increase dual-enrollment and create ‘Badge and Degree’ programs to broaden the pipeline of students who want to join the Virginia law enforcement.” Again, except for the branding, this is nothing new. The opportunity for high school students to take “Administration of Justice” courses in community colleges already exists. This “initiative” appears to be part of the administration’s effort to increase dual enrollment for the community colleges. Unless some of the Administration of Justice courses in the community college curriculum would satisfy some of the minimum law-enforcement training standards, it is not clear what advantage there would be for someone interested in entering law-enforcement to engage in this dual enrollment program.
Asked what specific actions will be taken “to increase dual enrollment” in this area, the Governor’s office responded, “There are opportunities for us to work with the Secretary of Education and the community college system to provide more resources for high school students to take coursework in Criminal Justice related courses.” That is a standard non-answer.
Retirement double dipping—The Governor proposes to “work with the Virginia Retirement System to ensure retired LEOs can collect benefits while working in new support roles.” Currently, VRS retirees can work part-time (up to 80 percent of the time for a full-time position) for a state or local agency covered by VRS and still collect full benefits. In addition, a retired law enforcement officer can work full time as a school security officer and collect full retirement benefits.
When asked, given that VRS retirees can already work part-time for a state agency and not give up retirement benefits, why this proposal would make any difference, the Governor’s office responded that these retired officers “possess a wealth of experience and knowledge” and the state and localities should be able to draw upon this experience on a full-time basis without the officers having to forego retirement benefits. “A new option must be found where the investment in these public servants could continue to benefit Virginia.” Unless there are a lot of retired cops around who are hankering to work five days, rather than four days, for a state or local agency, it is hard to imagine that this proposal will have much practical effect.
Gang prevention and group violence intervention—The press release declared, “Under the joint leadership of the Office of the Attorney General, and the Department of Criminal Justice Services, Operation Bold Blue Line will support community partners who support at-risk youth and focus on gang prevention and group violence intervention as well.”
I commented to the Governor’s office that this initiative sounded great and asked what specific actions would be taken and by whom. The response: “When it comes to violent crime, it’s crucial to understand that the solution lies in a whole of Government approach. Supporting community engagement programs is a critical component of strengthening the Bold Blue Line. These can include housing assistance, group violence intervention organizations, nonprofits, wrap around services or other initiatives. Programs for this were funded on December 8.” In other words, this “initiative” is a repetition of the first one in which $13 million (or $20 million in a later iteration) of existing funding was to be distributed by DCJS to various localities and agencies.
Victim/Witness assistance—The Governor proposed to work with the General Assembly to provide funds “for reasonable lodging and relocation expenses, transportation, and the installation of systems and devices necessary to fulfill protective services” for victims and witnesses.
This sounded awfully like the witness protection program run by the federal government. It turns out that it is not that grand. It is $2.5 million for a grant program to be administered by the Attorney General’s office. Under the proposal included in the Governor’s budget, law-enforcement agencies would be able to apply for temporary assistance for cooperating witnesses.
This seems to be another step in Attorney General Jason Miyares’ attempts to extend the reach of his office. DCJS or the Dept. of State Police would be better suited to administer grants to local governments in a nonpolitical manner.