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Virginia lawmakers advance several police reform measures

America Protests Richmond
Posted at 6:47 PM, Aug 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-25 18:47:18-04

RICHMOND, Va - On a pedestal where a statue to a Confederate general once stood, a new name is tagged over older messages: Jacob Blake. The 29-year old Black man who was shot by police officers in Wisconsin over the weekend.

On Tuesday, Virginia lawmakers advanced several police reform measures that have been major demands during ongoing racial injustice protests in the city. The House Public Safety Committee advanced bills mandating localities form community care response teams for mental health emergency calls, or MARCUS alerts, and civilian review boards for police misconduct.

Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond) sponsored the “Marcus-David Peters Act,” named for the high school biology teacher who was shot and killed by a Richmond Police officer while experiencing a mental health emergency in 2018. The bill defines the teams “as a group of mental health service providers working with registered peer recovery specialists and law-enforcement officers as a team, with the mental health service providers leading such team, to help stabilize individuals in crisis situations.”

Peter’s sister, Princess Blanding, addressed the committee Tuesday.“My brother, Marcus-David Peters, absolutely deserved help not death,” Blanding said. “The brain is the only major organ that when it stops functioning properly, we demonize, we incarcerate, and in the case of so many Black people, death is the final answer.”

Republicans on the committee voiced concern that finding mental health professionals to staff the teams statewide would be a major undertaking. Del. Carrie Coyner (R-Chesterfield) questioned whether police would have to “pause” when helping people in harms way of someone experiencing a crisis in order to wait for the community care team’s arrival.

“I’m supportive in concept. I’m struggling having personally gone through an experience when someone was under the use of drugs and came after a family member with a knife,” Coyner said.

The panel also advanced a measure requiring every locality to form civilian review boards to review police misconduct and provide oversight for specific actions of police and sheriff’s deputies.

“We need to have consistency across the Commonwealth when it comes to civilian review boards,” said Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), the House Majority Leader.

Some delegates and community advocates objected to Herring’s initial proposal because it would not have provided boards with subpoena power and allowed the Department of Criminal Justice Services to set minimum standards. Bourne introduced a substitute bill he said was closer to the Senate version of the proposal, which then passed through the committee along party lines and with Herring’s approval.

Advocates said allowing a law enforcement agency like DCJS to establish standards for the boards was problematic and failed to “give the community power” in holding local law enforcement officers accountable.

“From our work at the local level in Charlottesville and Richmond, we’ve seen what a fight it is to make these bodies meaningful,” said Kim Rolla with the Legal Aid Justice Society.

Vocal opponents of civilian review boards included some Republican lawmakers and the Virginia Sheriff’s Association, who argued law enforcement officers already face oversight in the form of criminal investigations for misconduct. Del. Tommy Wright (R-Nottoway) said the boards amount to a state mandate that lawmakers do not plan to fund, putting the financial burden on localities.

The House committee also advanced bills preventing police departments from purchasing certain military-grade equipment, making it easier to decertify law enforcement officers who face multiple misconduct allegations, and establishing curriculum and training requirements for all law enforcement agencies statewide.

Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) said the bills were “a long way from the finish line.” Both the House and Senate will take up, debate, and amend these measures and ones like them in the weeks to come.

Anthony Fisher, who has been a daily presence near the circle on Monument Avenue for more than 90 days now, said seeing these issues take center stage in the legislature marks a “stepping stone” for the energy he has felt.

“I want people to just appreciate that we are talking about it. Things are on the table and things are getting talked about,” Fisher said. “It’s not about getting something back, it’s about creating something better. What we’re doing is showing that by staying together, you can’t divide us.”