RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Senate Democrats put long-discussed police reforms to paper on Thursday, releasing their first bill ahead of a special session later this month.
The House of Delegates also wrapped up its last day of criminal justice hearings on Thursday. The Public Safety and Courts of Justice Committees held the meetings jointly to get feedback from stakeholders before releasing concrete legislative proposals.
The first bill from Senate Democrats is a package of police reforms that can be implemented statewide. Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said many of the proposals have widespread support from the law enforcement community, though some are likely to face push back.
Some law enforcement leaders have voiced concern about restrictive decertification requirements in Virginia. Surovell said officers can only be decertified for being convicted of a criminal act or testing positive for illicit drug use. This bill would allow departments to start the decertification process before a conviction, as well as broaden criteria to include the use of chokeholds, unjustified deadly force and shooting at a moving vehicle.
According to Surovell, multiple law enforcement agencies have said ‘loud and clear’ that they want more information about officers during the hiring process. He said this bill would require the transfer of disciplinary records to prospective employers. Officers coming from out of state would have to sign a waiver to release that information.
Other sections of the bill would expand Commonwealth’s Attorney’s access to disciplinary records, create a minimum standard of training for officers with community input, expand data reporting requirements, prohibit the purchase of military surplus and ban officers from having sex with those they arrest.
Another element of the legislation was also a focus of House Committee hearings on Thursday. The Senate proposal would ban no-knock warrants and require police to serve them during the day unless a circuit court judge rules otherwise.
Some in law enforcement have argued that these bans could restrict an officer’s options while dealing with dangerous criminals.
Many states have considered the proposal after Breonna Taylor, a 26 year-old EMT, was shot and killed earlier this year. Officers in Louisville, Kentucky entered her home unannounced while she was asleep.
“If you go into someone’s house at night, bad things are a lot more likely to happen,” Surovell said.
Dr. Rashawn Ray, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, told House Committees on Thursday that Virginia is not routinely granting no-knock warrants but forceable entry is allowed under certain circumstances in the commonwealth.
Another focus of the House hearing was how the state can best prop up civilian review boards. Del. Patrick Hope (D-Arlington) called these boards the ‘centerpiece of police reform.’
“If done right, they have the potential to create much-needed transparency and accountability in law enforcement,” Del. Hope said. “The only question in my mind is how do we best implement these boards and assure they’re functional across the commonwealth.”
Ray, who said he has served on several civilian review boards, said it’s also critical for citizens to have oversight in the internal review process within police departments.
“They serve as judge and jury over misconduct and the research I’ve done shows black and Latino officers are given more discipline relative to white officers,” Ray said. “The civilian review board only gets to look at and make a ruling on what happened in the department after the fact and so their ruling doesn’t mean much.”
Several advocates whose communities already have civilian review boards said the state needs to grant them subpoena power, which would allow them to obtain pertinent documents and force officers to testify.
Wayne Huggins with the State Police Association said whoever serves on these boards should undergo training to better understand the challenges officers face in the field.
“It would be tantamount to me sitting on a medical review board for a physician accused of medical malpractice. I know nothing about their profession,” Huggins said.
Senate Democrats are expected to release a concrete proposal on civilian review boards and several other reforms next week. The fate of these bills and those proposed by the House of Delegates will be decided in a special session that kicks off on Aug. 18.
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