RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Democrats set an ambitious agenda to reform policing in the state days before the special session began in August, proposing legislation that would overhaul police practices, change protocols when responding to emergency calls and to allow localities to have more oversight of local departments.
Now, as the special session approaches its end after nearly two months, several reforms have been passed and are headed to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk while others were voted down by lawmakers concerned about whether they went too far.
The governor called for a special session this summer initially to revise the state’s budget after the economic fallout from the pandemic but in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May, the need to address social justice issues felt urgent and compelled lawmakers to push for reform.
Democrats introduced legislation to prohibit no-knock warrants, ban neck restraints, to eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement and to give judges and juries the discretion to reduce the charge for assaulting law enforcement officers from a felony to a misdemeanor if the officer is not hurt during the encounter. Northam even announced his own priorities ahead of the session, which included expanding the criteria required for decertification and requiring officers to intervene if they witness a fellow officer attempting to or committing an unlawful use of force.
The Democratic-controlled General Assembly passed a slew of gun-control measures during the regular session, fulfilling campaign promises members of the party made before state elections last November. It’s clear that there are parallels between the legislative sessions: certain priorities have been approved and others have failed to garner enough support from either party.
One of the key pieces of legislation passed during the special session is an omnibus bill from Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton), the Senate Democratic Caucus Chair, that covers a wide range of issues that Democrats focused on this summer. The sweeping bill encompasses several other measures, including a ban on no-knock warrants and chokeholds.
Republicans backed some measures in the wide-ranging bill but many said they preferred it to be spread in a series of bills instead of the current package. Some Democrats said it didn’t go far enough.
“In this case, I like all the component parts. In fact, I think I’ve co-patroned every one of the House bills that this comprises. I know that I voted for every one of them and I support every one of them. So then what am I complaining about,” Del. Mark H. Levine (D-Alexandria) said during Wednesday’s floor session in the House of Delegates. “I’m complaining about not what’s in the bill, I’m complaining about what’s not in the bill. I’m complaining about missed opportunities.”
Levine cited multiple proposals, including HB 5112, a bill he introduced, that failed to make it through. HB 5112 would have required officers to report other officers who committed acts of wrongdoing and to render aid to people they saw suffering from a serious bodily injury or a life-threatening condition. The omnibus bill was ultimately passed by both chambers and is expected to be signed by Northam.
The General Assembly also passed legislation allowing localities to establish civilian review boards with subpoena power and the ability to issue its findings on incidents, including use of force complaints, acts of misconduct and the death or serious injury of someone who is in the custody of law enforcement.
Lawmakers are poised to approve a bill on Friday that would establish a statewide crisis response system named after Marcus-David Peters, a high school biology teacher who was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer in 2018 while experiencing a mental health crisis. Footage from the shooting shows a naked and unarmed Peters run towards the officer.
The “Marcus Alert” bill, which will head to the governor’s desk after being approved Friday, would require police departments in Virginia to follow protocols in the Marcus Alert System, which will be developed by the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) and the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS), while responding to emergency calls involving people who are experiencing a mental health crisis by 2026.
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