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Virginia Senate approves sweeping police reform legislation; chiefs criticize bills

Posted at 5:57 PM, Sep 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-10 18:55:53-04

RICHMOND, Va., — Virginia lawmakers voted on legislation aimed at reforming how police officers do their jobs during the General Assembly special session on Thursday.

The Virginia Senate passed a reform package sponsored by Sen. Mamie E. Locke (D-Hampton) that would prohibit no-knock warrants at night unless signed off by a judge, ban chokeholds, and expand certain decertification for officers, among other items.

The Senate’s Judiciary Committee also voted down H.B. 5013, sponsored by Del. Jeffrey Bourne (D-Richmond), that would eliminate qualified immunity protection for law enforcement officers and make it easier for people to sue police for civil rights violations.

The vote was 12-3 with plans to study the bill in a separate committee.

Thursday morning, four state law enforcement organizations held a news conference to voice their support and opposition to a number of police reforms currently in discussion in the General Assembly.

The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police (VACP) joined with the Virginia Sheriffs Association, the Virginia State Police Association and the Virginia Fraternal Order of Police in Chesterfield County.

“I have never witnessed lower morale than there is today throughout Virginia’s law enforcement community,” said Wayne Huggins, Executive Director, Virginia State Police Association. “To listen to the uninformed rhetoric we hear today one would think we are completely out of control and unprofessional.”

Huggins stated they do support enhanced decertification process and standards of conduct that would allow law enforcement to rid agencies of “bad cops.” He said the legislation they support would also prevent those officers from jumping to agency to agency.

The police also backed enhanced training opportunities like de-escalation techniques and crisis intervention.

“However, efforts to mandate civilian review boards, prohibit the acquisition of military surplus equipment or mandate all agencies to use body cameras do not come with state funding. For most localities, these unfunded reforms will create additional financial burdens for local governments that will have to find the funds to pay for the proposed legislative reforms,” according to a press release from the VACP.

Roanoke County Police Chief Howard Hall, president of Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, voiced his opposition to the Marcus Alert bill.

The bill is named after Essex County Public Schools teacher and VCU graduate Marcus David Peters, who was killed in 2018 by a Richmond Police officer while experiencing a mental health crisis.

If signed into law, the Marcus Alert would establish a system that would allow a mental health professional to lead crisis calls, while police serve as back up.

“The idea that social workers or mental health professionals will respond without police is foolish,” Hall explained.

Hall said he does support a system where counselors and police are co-responders.

Clair Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, has advocated for sweeping police reform including the passage of the Marcus Alert bill.

“Virginian has a law that basically allows an individual police officer to make a decision that someone’s liberties should be taken away,” she told CBS 6 by Zoom. “The training is not long enough, deep enough or repeated often enough to really address the concerns.”

The law enforcement also opposed SB 5032 that, if passed, would downgrade the charge of assault and battery on a law enforcement officer from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Critics of the current law say police overuse the charge, particularly in cases where they fear the person they arrested will claim police brutality.

“This does nothing but encourage additional attacks on our officers and sheriffs serving on the frontlines everyday and devalues the critical role they play in keeping our community safe,” said Herndon Chief Maggie DeBoard, 1st Vice President, Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. “This piece of legislation sends the wrong message to our citizens at the wrong time — a message that it’s fine to fight the police.”

Gastanage said she does support the charge of a felony if someone injures an officer, but under certain circumstances.

“The idea it should automatically be a felony to spit on a police officer and subject you to a mandatory six month sentence is out of proportion,” she explained. “There is a very serious felony if someone injures a police person. That’s what we should be concerned about.”

CBS 6 reached out to House Democrats about the concerns shared by the police, but we haven’t heard back as of Thursday afternoon.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), released a statement on the passage of the police reform, calling it a significant step forward.

“This landmark legislation is a significant step forward in reforming a justice system that has not been equitable.” said Sen. McClellan. “Leaders must take bold action to begin to restore public trust and provide long-overdue accountability and equity to our justice system. This legislation was successful after listening to advocates across the board and across the Commonwealth. Our constituents have asked for change and we are determined to continue to deliver that change during this special session and beyond.”