- Associated Press - Saturday, April 18, 2015

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A Virginia alcohol-law enforcement agency that has sparked public outrage over two high-profile arrests has investigated three complaints of excessive use of force by its officers in the last five years, according to data obtained by The Associated Press under an open-records request.

Details of those incidents, however, remain sealed. The Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Department declined to release the reports, citing personnel records exemptions in the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

This much is known: None of the use of force complaints involves the first incident that brought attention to ABC’s police tactics. No such complaint was formally lodged in 2013, when a University of Virginia student Elizabeth Daly’s car was swarmed by plainclothes ABC agents - including one who pulled a gun and another tried to break her SUV window with a flashlight - as she left a grocery store with a carton of sparkling water the officers mistook for beer.

Daly faced charges for grazing officers with her car as she fled in panic, but the case was dropped after a public outcry and she later settled a lawsuit against the state for $212,500.

“I still can’t understand the degree of aggressiveness they treat these kids with,” said Jim Thorsen, the attorney who represented Daly in her lawsuit. “I think they’ve lost the right to claim they can adequately enforce these laws.”

The alcohol agency announced a package of reforms in response to a Virginia State Police investigation, but less than two years later its police force is under scrutiny for another arrest at U.Va. Photos and video of ABC agents holding down student Martese Johnson, bleeding from a gash on his head, spread quickly on social media.

Johnson, who is black, can be heard in the video accusing the officers of racism. While his arrest provoked racial tensions on campus, ABC figures show 18.5 percent of the people it arrested over the last four years are black - slightly below the state’s black population of 19.7 percent.

Whether the ABC Bureau of Law Enforcement loses some of the authority it has used to make thousands of arrests annually is a major topic to be considered by a panel being assembled by state Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran. The initiative is part of an executive order issued by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in response to Johnson’s arrest. Moran said it is scheduled to conduct its first meeting May 4 and make recommendations before the end of the year.

“Hopefully the governor and the Legislature will be able to resolve the issue so we can continue to enforce the laws of the commonwealth and do it in a way that doesn’t bring unwanted attention,” Moran said.

The ABC law enforcement arm’s authority over licensed sellers of booze appears safe because even the agency’s critics say local and county police are ill-suited for that role. Whether ABC’s 130 sworn police officers continue to patrol bars to arrest people for underage drinking or showing a fake ID is another matter.

“The case still needs to be made to me to understand why they need to have those full arrest powers and, more particularly, why they ought to be involved in policing consumers of alcohol in addition to the licensees,” said state Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax.

ABC declined to take a public position on the issue, saying in a written statement that it will be addressed by Moran’s review panel.

Statistics compiled from ABC’s annual reports show that its law enforcement agents conducted nearly 56,000 criminal investigations and made more than 10,000 arrests over the last five fiscal years. The Daly and Johnson incidents raise questions about whether the three use-of-force complaints paint an accurate picture.

“I suspect that for every one reported there may be some number more unreported,” said Simon, who noted that Johnson’s arrest might have gotten little attention had it not been captured on video.

After the Virginia State Police investigated the Daly debacle, the ABC announced 14 policy or procedure measures, including a still-unfulfilled pledge to outfit its agents with body cameras and additional training.

Scrutiny by elected officials is nothing new for the ABC, which has survived periodic proposals to turn the state’s lucrative liquor business over to private interests. In the last five years, the agency that operates the state’s 350 liquor stores - one of 18 state alcohol monopolies nationally - has funneled more than $1.8 billion into the Virginia treasury.

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