Va. House speaker promises action on police reform during upcoming special session

By: - June 11, 2020 1:48 pm

Virginia State Police troopers stand outside the Capitol during the hectic final days of the 2019 General Assembly session. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A top Virginia Democrat is promising quick action on police reform when the General Assembly reconvenes this summer for a special legislative session.

“We have seen and we have heard aggressive change is needed now, and we see this all over the commonwealth and the country,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said Thursday. “As the speaker and certainly as an elected official and leader, it’s our job to listen, but also I feel strongly it’s our job to act quickly.”

But precisely what reforms the House, Senate and Gov. Ralph Northam are prepared to advance remains to be seen.

Filler-Corn, who sets the agenda for the House and controls the flow of legislation, says she’s still working with lawmakers to develop a package of bills, which she said will be informed by listening sessions with constituents.

“We’re spending a lot of time looking at exactly the scope and what we can do,” she said. “So I’m not prepared to list that out. … The bottom line is we’re going to move quickly during the special session.”

Mass demonstrations following the death of George Floyd at the hands of officers in Minneapolis have made criminal justice reform a nationwide focus. But before Filler-Corn’s announcement, it was unclear whether lawmakers in Virginia would take up the issue in the special legislative session that is tentatively set for early August.

Gov. Ralph Northam had scheduled the summer session to address the budgetary impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, but has since said he was open to addressing police reform and planned to hold his own town hall meetings to gather public input on possible policy recommendations.

Likewise, Democrats in the state Senate said Thursday they’re also working on legislation. “Senate Democrats are in the process of consulting community leaders within their districts and preparing some policy proposals,” said caucus director Kristina Hagen.

Advocacy groups have already outlined a range of Virginia-specific proposals they say would improve police accountability. In a Thursday letter to state lawmakers, the ACLU of Virginia and 26 other organizations called for:

• More transparency in police departments, including a mandate that “all departmental policies as well as critical police activity data is open and accessible to the public.”

• The creation of a statewide team of independent investigators and prosecutors charged with pursuing “law enforcement personnel who engage in or allow criminal acts that allow in death or serious injury.”

• Reduced funding for police departments. “We must reimagine the role of policing in our commonwealth and recommend changes in the budget that divest resources from policing and reinvest those resources in public education, health, crisis intervention, and other services that are preventative rather than punitive in nature.”

“Defund police” has become a rallying cry at protests in Virginia and around the country, but, outside of the party’s progressive wing, Democrats in Virginia and nationwide have generally avoided the slogan. Broadly, the idea is that rather than paying police to respond to non-police matters involving issues such as mental illness and homelessness, it might make more sense to spend money to address those root issues.

Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico and chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, says it’s not a phrase he’d use, but that as social priorities change, it’s natural that spending priorities would also change.

“I don’t necessarily see it as either or, but often times when we put forward budget amendments, the question we get is where do we get the money from,” he said. “If we are in fact funding education, funding support related to mental health, funding support related to substance disorders, then there won’t be as much need for some of the services that first responders our public safety survives.”

During a press briefing Thursday, Northam didn’t address “defunding,” but came out hard against “dismantling.”

“I think a lot of semantics have been used,” Northam said during a press briefing Thursday. “One of them is dismantling the police and I certainly don’t support that. Our police officers provide a much needed resource to our communities.”

While Northam did say he thinks it’s important for the state to discuss how it prioritizes funding, he emphasized ideas like increased diversity on police forces, broader de-escalation training and body cameras. On the latter point, he noted deploying more cameras would likely mean more spending on law enforcement because of the cost associated with reviewing all of the resulting footage.

He also floated the concept of “co-responding,” in which trained mental health workers would be dispatched with officers to certain calls. “I think it would be good to have someone truly trained in how to deal with mental illness,” he said. “That’s been discussed.”

GOP leaders in the House and Senate both said in statements Thursday that they would oppose any proposals to reduce law enforcement funding. “House Republicans will work to make sure our law enforcement professionals have the resources and support they need to do their jobs,” said Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.

Gilbert’s spokesman, Garren Shipley, said the caucus is still discussing reform proposals they might support.

Advocates argue that whether lawmakers want to talk about it or not, it will be nearly impossible to avoid discussions about cutting funding in the context of the special session, in which lawmakers will be tasked with reprioritizing millions in spending to account for massive revenue losses that have followed the pandemic.

“COVID-19 is forcing us to talk about our budget,” said Claire Gastañaga, director of the ACLU of Virginia. “How much of the $400 million we are currently spending on state police can we take away and put in a place where it will get us the results we want – a safer community?”

Meanwhile, representatives of the state’s police agencies say they’re open to discussions about shifting responsibilities from law enforcement to social and mental health agencies. But they’re not optimistic about the tenor of the current discussion and warned the public might end up with fewer officers on the streets whether it wants it or not.

“Law enforcement has picked up the slack for a long time,” said Dana Schrad, director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. “It’s a matter of whether you’re going to find the extra funding in a police budget that doesn’t require you to lay off large numbers of officers. But that might not even be necessary, because we anticipate a fairly good number of officers quitting anyway. … It’s not a profession that’s respected, appreciated or understood anymore.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.