RICHMOND, Va. — Democratic leaders of the General Assembly are pledging to pass laws later this summer that address issues of police misconduct raised by recent protests across the state and country.
Top members of the state Senate on Friday unveiled a list of legislative priorities for overhauling a law enforcement and judicial system that they said has mistreated African Americans, and House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, announced plans for public hearings to formulate proposals for lawmaking.
Their target is a special legislative session that Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has said he’ll call sometime in August. Originally aimed at solving tough state budget issues raised by the novel coronavirus pandemic and shutdown, the session appears all but certain to tackle criminal justice issues as well.
“Our constituents want change and we hear that loud and clear from them,” Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, said Friday in a news conference called by several senators who have been holding online “community conversations” on topics of police violence and social justice.
“It’s quite clear that we’re ready, and we need change,” Filler-Corn said in an interview. “There’s no reason to wait until the start of the special session, we need to start now.”
Four weeks of protests nationwide against police brutality, touched off by the killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, have sparked reviews of policy across the region. Lawmakers in the District acted early this month to ban the hiring of officers with a history of misconduct and make the disciplinary process more transparent.
In Maryland, state House Speaker Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County, has convened a work group to review police practices and make legislative recommendations ahead of next year’s General Assembly session.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus released a list of priorities earlier this week and said its 23 members are working on legislation for the expected August session. Many of the proposals have languished for years as Republicans controlled the legislature, but Democrats won majorities in both chambers last fall and now have the votes to act.
“The pressure generated by the protests has generated a larger public shift and facilitated avenues for such changes to be made in new and creative ways,” the caucus said in a news release.
The proposals include declaring racism a public health crisis; a menu of police accountability measures such as establishing a civilian review board with subpoena power and standardizing police training and accountability policies; and requiring police to summon mental health professionals in certain crisis situations.
“A lot of those are great ideas,” Northam said Thursday when asked about the list during a news briefing. He said he will urge lawmakers to take up police-related topics at the special session on the pandemic in August.
“There is clearly a need to address issues of racial injustice and police reform,” he said, adding that he is in talks with legislators and community members about potential legislation.
On Friday, Senate Democrats rolled out seven categories of proposed legislation that had been assembled by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, including “bringing equity to Virginia policing,” “reduce racial profiling opportunities for law enforcement” and “restore equity to the sentencing process.”
Within those categories were 28 specific proposals that the senators hope to take up during the special session, in addition to longer-term issues that they said should be priorities during the regular General Assembly session that starts in January.
“We’re not going to be able to fix it all overnight, but we can make a big improvement over what we have,” Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, said.
Goals for the special session include limiting the types of force that law enforcement officers can use, such as chokeholds and shooting at moving vehicles, and creating mechanisms to weed out officers who have misused force.
The senators also proposed reducing the crime of assault on a law enforcement officer from a felony to a misdemeanor, which they said had been the category for that offense until the 1980s. The threat of such charges, Surovell said, are often used to enable aggressive tactics against people of color.
The proposals also include giving prosecutors and judges more flexibility to drop charges or show mercy, and creating avenues for mental health responses instead of law enforcement.
“We’re going to do as much as we can to try and restore peoples’ faith in the justice system,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said.
Filler-Corn said she has been flooded with public input about police-related legislation, such as banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants and preventing police officers with a history of abuse from continuing to work in law enforcement.
She plans to hold three joint sessions of the House Public Safety and Courts of Justice committees in July and August. The hearings will be online and made open to the public, with ways to offer spoken or written comments. Dates are still being worked out, she said.
“My goal is to get as much input as possible from as many Virginians as possible prior to the special session,” Filler-Corn said. “There’s a strong cry for input.”