RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Thursday, the Virginia Senate passed a sweeping police reform bill that Democrats are hailing as landmark legislation. The vote came just before a Senate committee killed a House proposal that would’ve eliminated qualified immunity for law enforcement.
The qualified immunity bill was the subject of controversy and legislative whiplash in the days ahead of the Senate Judiciary Committee vote. The House revived the proposal, passing it on Tuesday after it failed to win a majority in the Democrat-controlled chamber last week.
The legislation would’ve made it easier for people to win civil lawsuits against officers accused of misconduct–a step the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus felt was essential to achieve racial equity in policing.
At a press conference on Thursday morning, groups representing law enforcement statewide condemned the bill as the biggest threat to their profession being debated in the special session.
“The passage of this bill alone will have a crippling effect on our profession around the state, causing good officers to leave at the very time we need to retain them the most,” said Herndon Chief Maggie DeBoard, Vice President of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.
In the end, just three Democrats voted against the motion to table the bill. Others supported the concept but felt it was too complicated to take on in a special session. The General Assembly is expected to revisit the issue in 2021.
Earlier in the day, the Senate successfully passed an omnibus bill that contained more than a dozen police reforms. Those measures include:
- Prohibiting no-knock warrants and preventing warrants from being served at night unless a judge approves it
- Banning chokeholds, except when necessary to protect the life of an officer or another victim
- Prohibiting officers from shooting at a moving vehicle, except in a life-or-death situation
- Expanding what officers can be decertified for, including misconduct
- Prohibiting the rehiring of officers that are fired or who resign during a use of force investigation
- Requiring past employers to transfer disciplinary records and personnel files to the hiring police department
- Setting stricter criteria for the use of deadly force, including requiring de-escalation attempts, warning shots and the exhaustion of all other options
- Creating a duty to intervene if one officer witnesses another using unlawful deadly force
- Expanding data reporting requirements intended to help identify racial bias in police stops and patterns of excessive force
- Ordering the creation of minimum training standards to be followed statewide
- Prohibiting the acquisition of military surplus equipment by local law enforcement
- Expanding commonwealth’s attorney’s access to police records
- Eliminating increased law enforcement funding if an agency fails to obtain accreditation
- Prohibiting law enforcement from having sex with people they arrest
“I consider this one of the best pieces of legislation I’ve seen during my time here,” said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax).
“This bill as passed is going to make law enforcement in Virginia much safer. It’s going to make police departments stronger,” said Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax).
Several Republicans said they would’ve supported some ideas in stand-alone bills but they couldn’t support the package as a whole.
Law enforcement groups took a similar position, noting that Senate Democrats worked closely with officers on the bill and incorporated some of their suggestions to improve it.
“They were sensible, perceptive and we can live with that particular bill…we are not unhappy with it” said Wayne Huggins, Executive Director of the Virginia State Police Association.
The House and Senate will have come to a consensus on various reforms before any of these bills can become law, a process that will unfold in the coming weeks.
Unlike similar proposals passed in the House, Senators decided to include exceptions to certain measures to appease law enforcement. For example, one House bill prohibits the use of chokeholds altogether while the Senate version clarifies that they can still be used if the life of an officer is in danger and there are no other options.
“The House of Delegates has largely ignored our thoughts and considerations. They passed several pieces of legislation that in reality will only hurt and impede law enforcement,” Huggins said.
House Democratic leadership declined to comment on Thursday.
While law enforcement leaders support many components of the Senate’s sweeping legislation, they raised serious concerns about banning no-knock warrants. The Senate bill also requires warrants to be served during the day unless officers obtain a judge’s approval.
Police chiefs also called provisions creating stricter standards for the use of deadly force unrealistic for a job that requires split-second decisions.