RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- In a bill to prevent local police from using military equipment, Virginia lawmakers are backing away from a sweeping ban on tear gas, rubber bullets and other crowd control tactics.
These methods came under fire after they were used against demonstrators in a series of racial justice protests in Richmond, prompting two City Council members to propose a prohibition. Action on that was deferred so the new police chief could improve training, which he admitted was lacking.
At least one Democrat is calling the version of the bill that recently passed in the House of Delegates “weak” but some parts still go too far for law enforcement.
“We need to be pro-First Amendment, it’s part of our Constitution. We need to be pro-police reform and we also need to be pro-police and I think this bill accomplishes all of that,” said Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax), who introduced the bill dubbed the ‘Best Equipment for Law-Enforcement Act.’
Instead of an outright ban, Helmer’s bill sets stricter standards for police departments who use these tactics.
The legislation says officers can still use tear gas if an unlawful assembly has been declared, a warning to disperse has been announced (two, if possible) and reasonable time is allowed for people to comply. The bill also says officers have to be trained and “qualified” in the past year to use the chemical agent as a crowd control measure.
“If we aren’t allowed to use a weapon in a war zone we probably shouldn’t be using it on Virginia civilians,” Helmer said.
Del. Lee Carter (D-Manassas) argued allowing police to use tear gas during an unlawful assembly is too low of a bar.
“It allows police to be the sole arbiters of whether or not a protest against police is legal and then to violently crack down on that protest against police violence,” Carter said during a floor debate. “So while the language is certainly an improvement over current law it is substantially weaker than what was introduced.”
The bill sets similar requirements for the use of “kinetic impact munitions,” which include rubber bullets and beanbag rounds. It adds that the use needs to be “immediately necessary to protect the law-enforcement officer or another person from the threat of serious bodily injury or death.” These shots also have to be targeted and not fired indiscriminately into a crowd.
For Del. Cliff Hayes (D-Chesapeake), this part of the bill is personal. He said his cousin Justin Howell–a black college student–suffered brain damage after being struck by a beanbag round at a protest in Austin, Texas.
Hayes supported the bill without a ban because he thinks requiring training and setting standards for these tactics is a critical first step.
“It would make a difference in preventing the type of tragedy my family has experienced,” Hayes said. “That’s not what this country is supposed to be about and we cannot allow this type of behavior to go on.”
Law enforcement groups representing departments statewide considered the removal of the ban an improvement. At a press conference before the bill was passed, Herndon Police Chief Maggie DeBoard said police officers need to have tools between de-escalation and lethal force to respond to unpredictable situations.
“So if you take all of these less lethal options away and you have a riot, what are law enforcement officers supposed to do?” said DeBoard. “We either go away or we shoot. You leave us with no options.”
Del. Robert Bell (R- Charlottesville) and other House Republicans raised issue with the penalty associated with the standards. He said officers who make a wrong move could be charged with a Class 6 felony.
Concerns also remain about other sections of the bill that prohibit the acquisition and use of certain military equipment in most cases.
A provision to ban MRAPs–vehicles built to withstand explosives in combat–prompted considerable debate among lawmakers.
Democrats argued that MRAPs send the wrong message and aren’t appropriate for civilian use. Local law enforcement departments that have these vehicles said using them is rare but at times necessary to respond to water rescues or armed shooter situations.
Wise County Sheriff Grant Kilgore’s office obtained one in 2014. He said they’re in the process of finding a smaller armored vehicle that can better maneuver winding rural roads.
“We haven’t used it a ton anyway but as far as a tactical consideration it’s something you want in the equation,” Kilgore said.
Kilgore said he’s more concerned about attempts to ban other military equipment. He said these supplies are often given to sheriff’s offices from the federal government at little to no cost, helping to supplement departments with strained budgets.
Helmer said, in special circumstances, the bill allows departments to apply for a waiver to continue using the equipment or to acquire new supplies.
Before Helmer’s bill lands on the governor’s desk, he said the House and Senate have to come to a consensus on some details. That process will unfold in the coming weeks as the special session continues.