Mandatory or Optional: Marcus Alert and Civilian Review Boards prompt lengthy debates

Capitol Connection

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- During a special session focused on COVID-19 and police reform, lawmakers are split on whether to make two key proposals mandatory for localities across the commonwealth.

House and Senate Democrats will have to resolve their differences before either bill can become law.

Marcus Alert

After a lengthy debate on Tuesday, the House Public Safety Committee advanced a bill that would require every locality to establish, or partner with an area that has established, a Marcus Alert system using ‘community care teams’ by July 2021.

These teams would consist of mental health professionals, peer recovery specialists and unmarked police officers. Del. Jeffrey Bourne (D-Richmond), who introduced the bill, said mental health professionals would take the lead so that crisis situations can be de-escalated.

Princess Blanding has been pushing for the change since her brother was fatally shot in 2018. Body camera footage from the incident shows Marcus David Peters charging a Richmond police officer during what appears to be a mental heath episode.

“My brother was given death instead of help,” Blanding said.

Blanding gave an emotional testimony to the House Public Safety Committee on Tuesday before lawmakers voted to report the bill to the House Finance Committee.

The bill, as drafted by the family of Peters, faced more pushback in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. Senators voted in bipartisan fashion to combine the bill with a similar proposal, effectively stripping the mandate.

“The one-size-fits-all approach does not work in Virginia,” said Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover).”We need to make sure localities have some flexibility.”

“I’m not a big fan of mandating jurisdictions or cities to do certain things,” said Sen. Joe Morrissey (D-Richmond). “Let’s establish that we’re in favor of the Marcus Alert, get localities to weigh in on it and then come back with additional legislation.”

Members of the House Committee raised concerns about how a rigid mandate would impact localities already in the process of implementing a mental health response infrastructure. Others pointed out that some counties might have trouble putting together the funding or mental health personnel for a community care team, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

In an interview with 8News on Tuesday, Blanding called out Senate Democrats for supporting a local option instead of a requirement.

“I’m very disappointed that the Democratic Caucus is only willing to go the path of least resistance and they’re deceiving the people,” Blanding said. “With the Democratic Party in the majority, there is no reason it cannot be passed the way the people are asking for.”

Civilian Review Boards

A similar debate emerged on Tuesday in regards to civilian review boards, which many have described as the central pillar of police accountability in communities. These independent panels would be appointed with diverse representation to investigate officer misconduct.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) introduced a bill to mandate the establishment of these oversight panels with subpoena power by July 2021.

This version of the bill originally directed the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services to create minimum operating standards for these bodies, language that was later removed by the Committee.

The proposal was ultimately conformed to Sen. Ghazala Hashmi’s (D-Richmond) civilian review boards bill with some changes. However, Herring wouldn’t budget on making the boards mandatory, saying systematic problems require systematic change. The House version also allows for oversight of sheriff’s departments.

“Now is the time to be bold,” said Del. Herring. “When you don’t require the same thing in each locality you start to build inequities.”

Hashmi’s bill, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, instead makes the policy optional and exempts sheriff’s departments. It allows localities–rather than a state agency–to build boards from the ground up.

Some advocates said this is the right approach. “That this is enabling legislation and not a top-down mandate is a strength of this bill. Meaningful, effective civilian oversight must be community driven and responsive to local needs and priorities,” said Kim Rolla of the Legal Aid Justice Center.

Advocate Chelsea Higgs Wise took to Twitter to express her support for Sen. Hashmi’s bill before speaking to the House Committee, calling it “one of the most progressive bills” she has seen the General Assembly take on.

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