Criminal justice, police reform expected topics during special session

By Debbie Hall and Brandon Martin

Several state representatives anticipate criminal justice and police reform proposals will be among those considered during the upcoming special session.

Gov. Ralph Northam called for legislators to return for a special session on Aug. 18.

“Rather than facing the issues head-on, we’ll be addressing unicorns. We’ve got to address the problems in policing and not have these knee-jerk reactions” that State Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Moneta.

In a Tuesday letter to law enforcement officials, Del. William Wampler III, R-Abingdon, said Northam “seems to be focused on ‘criminal justice reform’ and ‘police reform’ as the main priorities to be taken up. This movement to defund the police is taking root in the Governor’s office and among many legislators that we are aware of across Virginia.”

Wampler wrote that defunding operational budgets, removing School Resource Officers (SROs) from schools, ending ‘no-knock’ warrants, dismantling/defunding of SWAT/Tactical Teams, expanding the means to de-certify officers, removing qualified immunity statutes and prohibiting the use of ‘kinetic energy projectiles,’ such as rubber bullets, and prohibiting the use of tear gas and other non-lethal deterrents are among the “startling” priorities recommended after committee meetings this summer.

“We should never shy from opportunities to improve our criminal justice system, but I don’t believe in this type of reactionary politics,” he wrote.

Many of the issues Wampler cited mirror priorities identified by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus (VLBC) in June, when priorities included a desire to address and combat racism directly by declaring it a public health crisis, uncovering racial disparities in all areas of policy and creating solutions to bridge gaps, expanding hate crimes to include false 911 calls based on race and requiring courts to publish racial and other demographic data of all low-level offenses.

Additionally, it supports holding police accountable, strengthening regulation and improving transparency by creating a civilian review board with subpoena power, ending qualified immunity and making changes to sovereign immunity, establishing a state-wide officer database, standardizing and reforming police administration/training/accountability, expanding decertification criteria, expanding the use of body cameras and requiring independent investigations for all police-involved shootings/deaths.

Preventing law enforcement excessive use of force by defining and/or restricting excessive use of force, banning the use of chokeholds, restricting the use of tear gas/militarization tactics and weapons against civilians and passing the Breonna Law to end no-knock warrants also were among the identified priorities.

The caucus, which is made up of 23 members in the Virginia General Assembly, also prioritized replacing or reducing law enforcement’s role in certain areas with trained mental health specialists — for instance, in schools and when there are calls for those experiencing a mental health emergency, as well as divesting from large law enforcement budgets and investing more in communities.

“That’s coda for defunding the police,” Stanley said, which he opposes. However, some priorities have merit. For example, he does not oppose addressing cases of racial disparity “if they’re there.”

He also supports the creation of a database to ensure a potential employer is aware of any past performance issues an officer may have had, because “I agree that cops have to take out the trash.”

But others, such as directing courts to publish lists of low-level offenses “would be ridiculous, and a civilian review board would have an inherent “ability for corruption, Stanley said. We already have” stringent training.

He does not favor banning chokeholds, which he said are an officer’s “last resort if someone is going for their gun.”

School Resource Officers have a variety of duties, including breaking up fights, Stanley said. “If you take out the police officer, there will be more fights in schools. SROs are not the cause of the ‘prison pipeline.’ And, if there is a shooting” as has happened in some schools, “don’t you want an officer there?”

Del. Charles Poindexter, R-Glade Hill, said that Northam has only officially announced two issues to be discussed in the upcoming special session the budget for the current year and next fiscal year. 

Since revenues are down this year, Poindexter said that adjustments will need to be made to both budgets. 

“As long as the other side is for reducing spending,” Poindexter said that he could see some bi-partisan wins. “People are out of work and can’t pay more taxes so it wouldn’t be right to put that burden on them. We have to make cuts somewhere.”

As of now, Poindexter said legislators don’t know specifics about the procedural resolution. He explained that the resolution dictates business on the floor and identifies bills that may be taken up during the session. 

“They are holding it close to their chest,” he said. 

However, Poindexter said he anticipates bills regarding defunding of the police, setting up civilian review boards, making assault on an officer a misdemeanor instead of a felony, and “abolishing parole as we know it” will be among those considered.

Poindexter said that the plan of the democrat majority is for judges to empower parole boards to handle such cases.

As for defunding the police, Poindexter said “it’s stupid. You have to have law enforcement. They aren’t paid much as it is, and they live dangerous lives.”

When asked if he would support more funding towards mental health, Poindexter said “it’s a fine idea as long as it doesn’t come from the police.” He added that over the past five or six years, mental health funding has increased, but “when a mentally ill person has turned violent and is waiving a gun, there’s not much mental health professionals can do. They aren’t trained to handle violent individuals. That’s why we need police.”

He added that he was also not in favor of the proposal to set up civilian review boards. 

“You’ll have people that have never served in law enforcement making some of these decisions. How would they know what it’s like to be the one making those decisions? They’ve never been out in the field,” Poindexter said. “It’ll put a damning effect on law enforcement.” 

Overall, Poindexter said he hopes some of the potential bills will not go through without more public input. 

Del. Les Adams, R-Chatham, said legislators “were supposed to be called back to Richmond this summer relative to the budget and pandemic situation. After the video from Minnesota and all the social unrest, the governor said he wants to address public safety at that meeting as well.”

He was referring to a video of George Floyd, who died on May 25, while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. The officers involved in the incident were fired and have since been charged in connection with the death.

Democrats, which currently hold a majority of seats, called for a series of special joint meetings of the House Courts of Justice and Public Safety committees, Adams said, adding that he is a member of the Courts of Justice Committee.

“We’ve had a lot of different speakers that were called” and discussed several subjects, Adams said. However, it is unclear “in terms of what the plan” is moving forward.

“It seems to me the majority” favors “reimagining public safety and looking at broad, systematic change to policing in Virginia, he said, adding that currently, few, if any, proposals have been filed. “I imagine things will start moving pretty quickly after” the final joint committee meeting is held this week.

Del. Danny Marshall, R- Danville, could not be reached for comment.

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