Virginia House Democrats aim to pass measures to aid workers, policing reforms during special session

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Virginia State Capitol (Photo taken by 8News’ Dean Mirshahi)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia House Democrats plan to prioritize measures that will help residents amid the coronavirus pandemic and reform the state’s criminal justice and police systems during the upcoming special session, including legislation to grant paid sick leave to workers and eliminate qualified immunity for officers.

Democrats will focus on revising the state’s budget after the impact of the pandemic and find ways to “enact long overdue criminal justice and police reforms” in the wake of the civil unrest across the country, including Virginia, after the deaths of George FloydBreonna Taylor and others who have been killed by authorities.

The caucus outlined its agenda for the session, scheduled to begin next Tuesday at VCU’s Siegel Center, on Thursday.

“The House Democratic Caucus has laid out a bold plan this Special Session to support the Commonwealth’s students, teachers, workers and health care system as we recover from COVID-19,” House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) said in a statement. “We will also pass long-overdue legislation to reform our police and criminal justice systems. We look forward to a safe, efficient, and impactful Special Session.”

House Republicans criticized Democrats’ legislative priorities for the special session, saying that some do merit evaluation but others would “undoubtedly make communities less safe” and that they have not heard any plan on how the proposals would be funded.

In a statement, House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said his party will be introducing legislation that would strip police unions of their power when it comes to disciplining law enforcement officers.

“Republicans are ready to support legislation that will help Sheriffs and chiefs remove the few bad actors from their forces and prevent them from bouncing from department to department,” Gilbert said. “We also plan to introduce legislation that would take matters of discipline off the table for collective bargaining contracts. Police unions are a major impediment to removing bad actors when they are identified.”

House Democrats provided a comprehensive list of their legislative priorities for the session, including specific measures they plan to introduce in addition to the budget priorities:

COVID-19 Relief:

  • Requiring businesses to grant paid sick leave for Virginia workers.
  • Prohibiting garnishments of stimulus relief checks. (Office of Attorney General bill)
  • Establishing a presumption of workers’ compensation for first responders, teachers and other high-risk essential workers.
  • Providing immunity from civil claims related to COVID-19 for complying with health guidance.
  • Combating price gouging for Personal Protective Equipment. (Office of Attorney General bill)
  • Protecting Virginians from eviction during a public health emergency.
  • Creating a Commonwealth Marketplace for PPE Acquisition.
  • Mandating transparency requirements for congregate-care facilities during a public health emergency.

Criminal Justice and Police Reform:

  • Reforming Virginia’s laws related to expungement of police and court records.
  • Increasing good behavior sentence credits.
  • Strengthening prosecutorial ability to dismiss charges.
  • Eliminating qualified immunity for law enforcement officers.
  • Prohibiting no-knock warrants.
  • Banning the use of chokeholds and other lethal restraints used by law enforcement.
  • Creating a statewide Marcus Alert system.
  • Strengthening laws related to Citizen Review Panels.
  • Eliminating certain pretextual police stops.
  • Demilitarizing police departments by prohibiting the acquisition and use of certain weapons by law enforcement agencies.
  • Banning sexual relations between officers and arrestees.
  • Empowering the Attorney General to conduct “pattern or practice” investigations of police forces that appear to be violating constitutional rights, including unlawful discrimination. (Office of Attorney General bill)
  • Expanding the definition of hate crimes to include false 911 calls made on the basis of race.
  • Standardizing and enhancing training for all police academies.
  • Mandating the duty of one officer to report and intervene during the misconduct of another officer.
  • Requiring decertification of law enforcement officers who fail to properly perform their duties.
  • Strengthening the assessments and vetting required before hiring law enforcement officers.
  • Diversify the Department of Criminal Justice Services’ Committee on Training.

Making Virginia More Equitable:

  • Codifying Juneteenth as an official holiday of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
  • Allowing localities or local governments and communities greater latitude in the process of removing Confederate statues and other war monuments.

Democrats in the Virginia Senate unveiled a bill last week that aims to “bring equity into policing” by addressing how officers are recruited, training standards, use of force, reporting and police conduct and accountability. Senate Democrats said it would be one of several justice reform bills to be introduced.

“The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have awoken Americans and Virginians to a long-standing problem,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) said on Aug. 7. “Just because something happened in Minneapolis and Louisville and Georgia does not mean Virginia is immune.”

You can find the bills that have already been introduced for the special session here.

“We must act now to ensure that Virginia continues to become a better place for everyone to live, work, and raise a family,” Virginia House Majority Leader Charniele Herring said Thursday. “Our mission to move the Commonwealth forward requires us to tackle racial inequities. Reforming systems that perpetuate those inequities, including police procedures and many aspects of criminal justice, is a top priority for House Democrats.”

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