House panel backs ban on tear gas, rubber bullets

By: - August 25, 2020 7:46 pm

A Dumpster fire burns behind a line of Virginia State Police officers near Richmond’s police headquarters during a protest responding to the death of George Floyd. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Lawmakers in the House of Delegates gave a preliminary thumbs up Tuesday to legislation banning police from using tear gas and rubber bullets — so-called nonlethal weapons that departments around the state and country have deployed in response to recent widespread civil unrest.

“It’s currently legal for police in Virginia to use chemical weapons against civilians that we don’t even allow our troops to use in warzones,” said Del. Dan Helmer, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the legislation. And rubber bullets and beanbag rounds, he said, “are known to pose significant risk of death and permanent disability.”

The bill, dubbed the Best Equipment for Law Enforcement Act, passed the House’s public safety committee on a party-line vote, with Democrats supporting and Republicans opposing. In addition to reining in crowd-control tactics, it also limits what kinds of military equipment police can obtain.

Law enforcement groups opposed the legislation, arguing rubber bullets, also called kinetic rounds, are an important law enforcement tool, especially in stand-off situations where someone is armed with a knife or other non-projectile weaponry.

“The way these munitions are used on a regular basis is not in civil disturbances,” said Herndon Police Chief Maggie DeBoard, president of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. “I spent four years commanding a SWAT team. I can tell you, these munitions save lives.”

As a compromise, she suggested limiting the ban to protests and riots, where their deployment has caused brain damage, loss of sight and other disabilities.

Herndon also defended the use of a federal grant program that distributes military surplus to local departments around the country, arguing military rifles departments obtain through the program are essential equipment in the event of a shooting in which the perpetrator is also armed with a rifle. Law enforcement groups have also said armored vehicles play an important role in some standoffs.

“I will tell you a lot of smaller and mid-sized agencies do not have the funding to purchase these for their agencies,” she said. “They need to be in the hands of patrol officers.”

The legislation goes significantly further than similar language contained in a police reform omnibus bill advanced by the Senate, which initially included a blanket ban on military surplus items but was pared down to win support from law enforcement groups.

In addition to military rifles, the House version also bans armored and mine resistant vehicles, which are allowed in the Senate version. And for surplus items that aren’t prohibited, it requires police to publish a public notice within 14 days after requesting the equipment.

The House Committee on Public Safety also endorsed legislation that takes a more aggressive approach to civilian review boards than the Senate is currently considering.

While the Senate version exempts local sheriffs from additional oversight because they’re directly elected by citizens as constitutional officers, House lawmakers say they should still be subject to independent review.

And the House version of the bill requires all local governments to establish review boards while the Senate is just proposing enabling legislation that would allow but not mandate the additional layer of oversight.

“This is our first time speaking on this and I would like us to be bold,” said House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, who is carrying the legislation in the House.

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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.