RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Almost five months after George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis, the Virginia General Assembly has passed a host of police reforms as it nears the end of a special session.
The reforms include legislation that bans no-knock search warrants, enables localities to establish civilian review boards with subpoena power and disciplinary authority, and makes it easier to decertify officers who commit misconduct.
Other reforms were rejected amid pressure from Republicans and police who branded the legislation as “anti-law enforcement” and predicted it would make officers' jobs more dangerous. Those reforms included a bill that would've made it easier to sue police officers for misconduct and legislation that would've eliminated mandatory jail time for assaulting a police officer.
The reform package now headed to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam's desk is getting mixed reviews from law enforcement agencies, social justice advocates and lawmakers.
"It's been clear that we need to reimagine and transform the role of police in our society, and in this special session there's been some steps by the legislature to do that, but we have a very long road ahead of us in Virginia when it comes to racial justice and police accountability," Ashna Khanna, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said Thursday.
Republican Del. Ronnie Campbell said the reform legislation went too far, “vilified” police and will result in increased crime rates.
“I truly hope we are finished fixing law enforcement in Virginia,” he said.
But Democratic House Majority Leader Charniele Herring said the legislature has taken a “holistic approach” to police reform that respects both law enforcement and individual rights.
“What we are doing is to make the Commonwealth safer, and it is to improve the relationship between communities and law enforcement,” Herring said.
The more than a dozen reform bills passed by the General Assembly include legislation that mandates the intervention of an officer to stop the use of excessive force by another officer, bans the use of neck restraints — except if immediately necessary to protect the life of an officer or another person — and expands the definition of hate crimes to include false 911 calls or reports made on a discriminatory basis.
Other legislation headed to the governor's desk includes bills to demilitarize police departments by prohibiting the acquisition of certain weapons and military equipment, ban sexual relations between officers and arrestees, and authorize the state attorney general to conduct “pattern or practice” investigations of police departments that appear to be violating constitutional rights.
One bill that's been a focal point for social justice advocates would establish community care teams around the state to respond to emergency calls involving people experiencing mental health issues. The teams would be led by mental health providers and behavioral specialists, with police as backup support.
The bill is named after Marcus-David Peters, a high school biology teacher who was fatally shot after he charged at a Richmond police officer during a mental health crisis in 2018.
It was approved by the House of Delegates, and the Senate is expected to vote on it Friday.
“Community care teams will be in the community, will know the people they serve personally, and will know that when they receive the call to talk their clients and friends down the ledge, that it is not a ‘split-second decision’ of life or death, but rather one of healing and progress,” said Del. Jeff Bourne, chief patron of the House bill.
Lawmakers also unveiled details of a compromise budget between the House and Senate that puts off much of the new spending lawmakers had approved before the coronavirus pandemic.
Northam urged lawmakers to move quickly on the budget when the special session started in August. But the process was delayed in part by disagreement over budget language that would enable the formation of a proposed new bipartisan redistricting commission.
Voters will decide Nov. 3 whether to approve a constitutional amendment that would create a commission of citizens and legislators equally divided between Democrats and Republicans to redraw the state’s congressional and General Assembly districts to conform with the 2020 census.
Most House Democrats oppose the referendum, saying it still gives lawmakers too much power in drawing maps. Lawmakers agreed to withhold the redistricting-related language in the compromise version, with the expectation that Northam would add it back in after the election if the referendum passes.
The budget also includes a $500 bonus for Virginia's police officers to be paid out in December. State employees could get a $1,500 bonus next year, but only if there’s enough revenue. Lawmakers are also directing Northam to include a raise for teachers in next year’s budget, if budget projections meet a certain level.
Northam announced Thursday he was approving $1,500 bonuses to home health care workers as hazard pay for working during the pandemic. The bonuses will go to 43,500 health care workers and be funded by $73,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds.