Cities across the United States debate reallocating funding to “community investment” or dismantling their police forces. While this goes on, the state of Virginia has taken its own approach. The state will allow private citizens in each locality to determine how their police force operates.
On Tuesday, the Virginia Senate passed Senate Bill 5035. It would allow local governments to establish civilian review boards that could have subpoena power and the authority to make binding disciplinary decisions if there is a serious breach of department and professional standards. Boards also could be given the power to “investigate, and issue findings on complaints from civilians regarding conduct of law-enforcement officers.”
Democrats and Republicans hotly debated the bill. They ultimately voted along party lines, passing the bill 20-15.
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Local governments would not be required to create review boards. However, they would ultimately decide how much authority their board would maintain.
Hopes for the Bill
Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, sponsored the bill. She insists that it will improve the relationships between the public and their police departments. She also wants it to help rebuild trust.
Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, argued that the legislation could give unprecedented powers to people on a board who do not believe police can ever use tear gas or rubber bullets to contain a riot, or use a baton to protect themselves.
The very people who are attacking police officers could find themselves in a position of power over them. This limits their ability to protect themselves from such attacks.
Sen. David Marsden, D-Burke, believes that local governments will thoughtfully sit down and make decisions about whether to establish a board and what authority to give it. Some models will have flaws, which can be fixed over time. He said one day there will be a model policy for everyone. Also, one day, decisions will no longer will made behind closed doors.
Special Legislative Session in Virginia
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam had called for a special legislative session to begin on August 18. This comes with the intent of tackling coronavirus pandemic and policing-related issues.
Going into the session, Democrats were looking to ban law enforcement use of a chokehold. They also want to set stricter thresholds for when an officer can resort to deadly force.
On the other hand, Republicans sought expanded use of body cameras and tighter hiring standards for new officers.
Senate Democrats had also introduced a bill to downgrade the charge of assaulting an officer from a felony, to a misdemeanor, if officers are not seriously hurt. They also seek to eliminate the use of no-knock warrants and make it easier to decertify officers for misconduct. They also want to require officers to intervene if they see another officer using excessive force.
Virginia is not alone in their sweeping efforts to eliminate incidents of police brutality, although they are the first state to take dramatic steps to limit how police officers respond to aggressive behaviors. On the city level, 18 cities have cut funding to police departments, significantly decreased officer numbers, or are in the process of both. These cities include Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Durham, Hartford, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, New York City, Oakland, Philadelphia, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Winston-Salem, and D.C.