The City Council of Virginia Beach’s unanimous vote on Wednesday night to create a new 11-member Independent Citizen Review Board that will investigate civilian complaints and police policies was decades in the making.
It came after an early March retreat where city leaders had said they would not exercise a newly passed state law that gave localities the power to beef up their review boards following the murder of George Floyd.
According to community leaders involved in the fight, the change of heart for many city leaders came after the March 26 police shooting of 25-year-old Donovan Lynch—an incident that gained nationwide attention, in part because Lynch is the cousin of musician and Virginia Beach native Pharrell Williams.
Williams, who did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday penned a letter in October to the city manager about his decision not to bring back a hit music festival back to his native city because of the death of his cousin. Williams wrote at the time that a “toxic energy” there had changed the narrative around the shooting of Lynch.
“It obviously became a lot more urgent” to make a change to the city’s review board after Lynch’s shooting, said Sean Montiero, chairman of the task force that worked over the summer to recommend the new board approved by city leaders on Wednesday.
Montiero said the nationwide outrage following Floyd’s murder in 2020 was a “catalyst” for the city to finally take a look at police oversight after “multiple years” of discontent from some residents. But he said Lynch’s shooting in March hit close to home and “heightened” the conversation.
Lynch, a 6-foot-5 Black former college lineman and youth volunteer coordinator in Virginia Beach, had been having dinner with a friend during an unrelated shooting incident nearby on the night of March 26 that drew a heavy police presence, according to a lawsuit filed by his family.
While leaving the restaurant and walking to his car, the suit claims he encountered Solomon Simmons, a Black police officer with the Virginia Police Department, who allegedly shot Lynch twice as he was responding to the ongoing shooting incident. According to the suit, Simmons, “immediately, unlawfully, and without warning” fired twice and killed him.
In court filings responding to the suit, Simmons argued he saw Lynch during an “active shooter” situation and said he heard what sounded to him like the “slide of a handgun placing a bullet into the chamber” and turned in the direction of the sound to see Lynch crouching behind shrubs. He said he called out and Lynch “rose and turned” with a gun in hand and pointed in Simmons’ direction at which point he shot twice. According to the court filings, Simmons said he didn’t turn his body camera on because he was focused on the “threat of deadly force.”
In a press conference on March 27, Virginia Beach Chief of Police Paul Neudigate said the police presence began in the area that night after seven people were shot during a fight that escalated into gunfire. One victim was Deshalya Harris, a 28-year-old Black woman who Neudigate said he believed was an “innocent victim” of stray gunfire.
Neudigate said Lynch’s shooting happened in the same vicinity but was not associated with the initial gunfight. In a statement on March 29, the police department said they had interviewed the officer involved in the shooting, an officer who witnessed it and “independent witnesses.” The department reported Lynch was “brandishing” a handgun at the time of the shooting and that a gun was recovered at the scene. The following day the police department announced the investigation into the death had been turned over to the Virginia State Police.
“The Lynch family and the involved officer each deserve a comprehensive and thorough investigation into this incident, and we appreciate the public’s patience as we pursue every facet of it.”
The Virginia Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Wayne Lynch, Donovan’s father, declined to comment because of the ongoing investigation. On Wednesday, however, he told WAVY, after sitting in attendance during the vote to establish the police review panel, “It’s taken a long time to come to this.”
Following the high-profile shooting in March, Montiero said the “ambivalence” to provide more power and authority to a police review board in the city dissipated. In April, the city council narrowly approved the creation of a task force to study potential changes to their review board. The city’s mayor, Bobby Dyer, who has a vote on the council, voted against the task force measure, expressing concern that the initiative might hinder recruiting and retention efforts at the police department.
Dyer, who voted for the final bill, did not respond to a request for comment.
Montiero said that among the task force’s goals was to get community input on what they wanted to see in a revamped review board. He said subpoena power and a stronger power to independently investigate instances of alleged misconduct were two key things he heard.
“I feel like we moved the needle in that direction,” he said, though he wasn’t quick to call the current proposal everything that was being sought after. “I think there is more as this thing matures that we can do to tighten it up and make sure it still achieves the effect that we’re looking for.”
During the vote on Wednesday, council members praised the creation of the new board as a good “first step.” However some council members expressed concerns.
N.D. “Rocky” Holcomb said during the meeting that as a former law enforcement officer he supported the changes, but hoped that “issues” would be addressed moving forward related to subpoena powers. “I do think the devil is in the details with a lot of it,” he said.
Dyer said the passing of the new ordinance was the “first step of a journey” and said the council would take up “course corrections and adjustments” that are necessary in the future.
Minister and activist Gary McCullom, however, warned that the new panel, which he’s advocated for over decades, won’t have the power needed to ensure transparency and accountability.
He worries that the new board as passed might not be as “independent” as some make it out to be. Among McCullom’s concerns, shared by others who spoke during public comment on Wednesday, is that the person who would be in charge of the new board would report to the city manager and not the city council.
“If you want this to be a true citizen’s review board, have it report to the entity where the citizens actually hire and fire,” he said. “We don’t hire and fire the city manager.”
McCullom said he fears a city manager could reduce the effectiveness of the board because they would control the board’s budget.
Virginia Beach city manager Patrick Duhaney did not respond to a request for comment. During the council meeting on Wednesday, Dyer said he was confident the city manager was “capable” of moving the board in the “right direction.”
McCullom said that another concern is that while the new board has subpoena power, they can only exercise it with a supermajority vote, rather than a majority vote.
For a board that will be appointed by council members, some of whom he said are only backing the new board because of “political pressure,” McCullom said he worries the rules will allow council members to “stack” the board with preferred choices that will stop the board from actually using the power that many people fought for.
“You should not hinder the board by saying it has to be a super majority. Just make it a simple majority,” he said. “By making it a super majority, in effect, you will never get a subpoena out of that body.”
None of the Virginia Beach City Council members responded to requests for comment for this story.
Despite his criticisms, McCullom also agreed that the new board was a move in the right direction. He said he hopes the lingering issues with the board can be ironed out as the 11-member panel is appointed and trained and gets into motion.
“Yes, it’s a good first step,” he said. “But we’re anxious to see the second, the third, and the fourth to really say that we’re on the right path.”