Virginia Beach police used forged documents that linked people’s DNA to a crime to get them to confess or cooperate with investigators, Virginia’s outgoing attorney general announced Wednesday.
The city’s police department has changed its policy in the wake of the state’s probe, Attorney General Mark Herring said in a statement. In a separate statement, the city said it had ended the practice in May after conducting its own investigation, but called the tactic legal.
Virginia Beach police serve a city of about 450,000 people along the state’s coast.
Officers used fake reports purporting to be from the Virginia Department of Forensic Science at least five times during interrogations between 2016 and 2020, Herring’s office said.
The bogus pieces of paper included a seal and letterhead from the state agency, the AG’s office said. In two instances, the documents included the signature of a fictitious employee from the department, and in at least one instance, a forged report was presented to a court as evidence, the AG’s office said.
Herring’s office didn’t say whether the use of the forged documents would invalidate any confessions that were obtained as a result, or otherwise affect the cases in which they were employed.
“This was an extremely troubling and potentially unconstitutional tactic that abused the name of the Commonwealth to try to coerce confessions,” Herring said.
He said that while he appreciates that the department stopped the practice “and cooperated with our investigation, this is clearly a tactic that should never have been used.”
CBS Norfolk, Virginia affiliate WTKR-TV crime analyst Rick James, a retired law enforcement officer, remarked that, “The badge is supposed to be a symbol of trust. … The findings under this investigation will take a hit on the Virginia Beach Police Department public trust.”
The strategy was discovered last year after a prosecutor asked the Department of Forensic Science to provide a certified copy of a document that police falsely claimed came from the department. The AG’s Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation and then proposed a “conciliation agreement” to stop the practice and reform department policies.
The Virginia Beach City Council agreed to the changes on Tuesday, Herring said. They include an order from the police department mandating that all sworn personnel stop using fake certificates of analysis from the state agency. Detectives also must acknowledge and commit to following the order.
The terms of the agreement will remain in effect for at least two years, the state said. The Office of Civil Rights will notify the people who were interrogated with forged documents.
Herring, a Democrat, will step down from the AG’s office this weekend, and Republican Jason Miyares, who defeated Herring in the election last year, will take over.
In a statement, the city of Virginia Beach said its police department “took immediate and proactive steps to address this very limited interrogation technique which they felt, though legal, was not in the spirit of what the community expects.”
The department’s investigation reviewed 9,600 criminal cases and “found a total of five instances over a five-year period … where inauthentic replica certificates were used,” city officials said.