A small group of police officers carrying clubs clashed briefly with protesters before leaving the area on Aug. 11, 2018, in Charlottesville, the anniversary weekend of the deadly white supremacist rally that left one dead and dozens injured. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Senate Democrats unveiled police reform legislation Thursday they hope to adopt during a special session of the General Assembly later this month.
Endorsed by the caucus’ 21-member majority, the 33-page bill proposes a range of new policies from the creation of statewide standards for police officers to a ban on departments obtaining surplus military equipment.
“You’ve heard us talk before about the fact that the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have awoken Americans and Virginians to a longstanding problem that has existed in this country,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, who will patron the bill. “And just because something happened in Minneapolis and Louisville and Georgia does not mean that Virginia is immune from those kinds of activities.”
As a recent example, she cited video of a state trooper telling a Black motorist, “You are going to get your ass whupped,” before violently pulling him from a car.
The legislation includes a range of new rules governing how police officers do their jobs. In addition to banning departments from obtaining surplus military equipment from the federal government, it would require officers to get a judge to approve any warrants executed at night or without knocking and identifying themselves first.
“If you go in someone’s house at night, bad things are more likely to happen and there ought to be special circumstances,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax.
The legislation also calls for the reconfiguration of the Virginia Criminal Justice Services Board to include representatives from civil rights groups and tasks the body with developing a proposed statewide officer code of conduct.
While the content of those standards would largely be developed later, the bill specifies limits on how officers use force by banning the use of neck restraints and limiting the use of deadly force to instances in which an officer or bystander faces the threat of immediate and serious injury, the officer has given a verbal warning and exhausted other alternatives.
The legislation also specifically bars police from firing into a moving vehicle in most situations and requires police to intervene and render aid if another officer is using unlawful force. And it makes it a felony for an officer to have sex with someone in police custody, which is not currently a crime in Virginia.
The new standards would be used to expand the process by which police can lose their license to work as sworn officers. Decertification is currently limited to narrow circumstances that require officers to be convicted of certain crimes or refuse a drug test. Only a handful of officers have lost their licenses in Virginia, compared to hundreds in other states.
The legislation also requires police departments to share personnel records with other agencies as part of the job search process and requires records detailing misconduct be made available to prosecutors during investigations, addressing a complaint local police chiefs and commonwealth’s attorneys have raised.
Representatives of police groups in Virginia have generally endorsed expanding the reasons officers are decertified to include serious misconduct that doesn’t rise to the level of a crime or simply isn’t prosecuted. They’ve also expressed concern about limited information sharing between departments and the ability of bad officers to jump from department to department when they run afoul of rules.
But officers have said they don’t support proposed limits on how they use force, worrying that a proposed requirement that police issue a warning before firing weapons would put them in danger.
“We oppose any requirement that would cause hesitation in our decision-making process such as warn first,” Wayne Huggins, the executive director of the Virginia State Police Association, said during a House of Delegates committee meeting earlier in the day. He went on to recount the sudden shooting deaths of two state troopers during routine traffic stops. “I can cite many, many more.”
Senate Democrats said they plan to roll out more criminal justice reform proposals next week. House Democrats, who also hold a majority in their chamber, said they expect to begin introducing proposed legislation soon.
Members of the minority party have also filed a handful of bills.
Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, proposed the creation of a Commission on Civil Rights and Policing to develop recommendations for the General Assembly to act on next year. And Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, introduced legislation calling for a ban on neck restraints by officers.
Norment has also introduced legislation pushing back on a separate proposal floated by Senate Democrats to eliminate the felony penalty for assault on a law enforcement officer, a charge that is frequently used in cases where the officer was not injured or, in some cases, even touched by the defendant.
Norment’s proposed bill would instead increase the penalty from a Class 6 felony punishable by a mandatory sentence of six months to a Class 5 felony punishable by a mandatory sentence of a year.
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