From banning chokeholds to ‘divesting’ from police, Va. Black Caucus rolls out reform agenda

Members of the Legislative Black Caucus laid out their legislative priorities for the veto session in April of 2019 and responded to criticism from Republicans for working with Gov. Ralph Northam on the issues despite their calls for his resignation. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Banning chokeholds. Restricting the use of tear gas against crowds. Making it a hate crime to falsely call 911 for racial reasons. Ending no-knock warrants. Reducing police budgets and replacing some law enforcement services with trained mental health experts. Requiring courts to release racial data on people charged with minor crimes. Legalizing marijuana.

It might not all happen. But the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus says it should.

On Wednesday, the Black Caucus released a comprehensive list of policy priorities it will advocate for during a special session in Richmond later this summer, where lawmakers are expected to take up a host of issues tied to the nationwide reckoning over policing and racial discrimination following the death of George Floyd.

“The Commonwealth is past the point for studies on policing and law enforcement — immediate action must be taken to eliminate law enforcement abuse, prevent and punish racist behaviors, weed out institutional discrimination and increase accountability at all levels of law enforcement,” the caucus said in a statement.

The calls for immediate change come during what was already a momentous shift in Virginia politics, with Democrats in full control of the state’s policymaking branches for the first time in decades.

An exact date for the special session — which will also involve budgetary discussions in response to the COVID-19 crisis – has not been set, though Gov. Ralph Northam has said he expects to call lawmakers back to Richmond in August.

Specific legislation hasn’t been drafted yet, but Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the chair of the Black Caucus, said he’s optimistic that his colleagues’ priorities will advance.

“I’m extremely confident that we will move the bulk of that legislation forward,’ Bagby said in an interview. “I’ve been working aggressively as have my colleagues in making sure we hear everyone’s voices. Because everyone seems to be vested in a significant change.”

Because the Black Caucus has members from across the state, with the exception of far Southwest Virginia, Bagby said, the policy list was the product of “many different voices.”

“We’ve been able to talk with commonwealth’s attorneys and police departments and attorneys, individuals convicted of crimes and those individuals that are out protesting,” Bagby said.

The full list of Black Caucus priorities is as follows:

Address & Combat Racism Directly by:

  • Declaring Racism a Public Health Crisis in the Commonwealth of Virginia

  • Uncovering Racial Disparities in all Areas of Policy & Creating Solutions to Bridge the Gaps

  • Expanding Hate Crimes to Include False 911 Calls Based on Race

  • Requiring Courts to Publish Racial and Other Demographic Data of all Low-level Offenses

Hold Police Accountable, Strengthen Regulation, & Improve Transparency by: 

  • Creating a Civilian Review Board with Subpoena Power

  • Ending Qualified Immunity & Making Changes to Sovereign Immunity

  • Establishing a Statewide Officer Database

  • Standardizing and Reforming Police Administration, Training, and Accountability

  • Expanding Police Decertification Criteria

  • Expanding the Use of Body Cams

  • Requiring Independent Investigations for All Police-Involved Shootings/Deaths

Prevent Law Enforcement Excessive Use of Force by:

  • Defining and Restricting Excessive Use of Force

  • Banning the Use of Chokeholds

  • Restricting the Use of Tear Gas and Militarization Tactics and Weapons Against Civilians

  • Passing “Breonna’s Law” to End No-Knock Warrants

Replace Law Enforcement’s Role in Certain Areas with Trained Specialists by:

  • Implementing the “Marcus Alert” to Require Behavioral/Mental Health Professionals to Respond to those thought to be having Mental Health Crises

  • DIVESTING from Large Law Enforcement Budgets & INVESTING More in Communities

  • Reducing SRO Presence in Schools & Replacing them with Mental Health Professionals

Continue the Fight for Criminal Justice Reform by:

  • Implementing Automatic Expungement

  • Reinstituting Parole

  • Passing Cash Bail Reform

  • Increasing Good Behavior Sentence Credits

  • Legalizing Marijuana

Pass COVID-19 Relief & Protections by:

  • Expanding Protections Related to Housing & Evictions

  • Providing Rent and Mortgage Relief

  • Classifying Frontline Workers as Essential Workers

  • Requiring Hazard Pay and PPE for Essential Workers

  • Guaranteeing Paid Sick Leave