General Assembly passes police reform bills and budget during extended special session

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General Assembly passes police reform bills and budget during extended special session
Photo/Missy Schrott
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

City Council received an update on the Virginia General Assembly’s special session during its legislative meeting on Tuesday night.

The session, which convened on Aug. 18, has been very special indeed. Tasked with passing a budget in response to the revenue impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as broader pandemic relief measures and police reform, legislators have been working for more than two months to hammer out answers to some of the state’s biggest questions.

Together, the House of Delegates and Virginia Senate passed more than 50 bills this session. Although many are still awaiting Gov. Ralph Northam’s signature, the bills that have been passed will likely change very little, the city’s Legislative Director Sarah Taylor told council.

Some of the most sensitive and complex legislation passed dealt with criminal justice and police reform. The conversation was kickstarted after the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black security guard who was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer in May and the protests that occurred nationwide in the aftermath of that case.

The General Assembly passed a bill that authorizes localities to establish community police review boards, something City Council has already been exploring.

“The legislation is optional for localities and does not include sheriff’s departments in the definition of law enforcement, which would be subject to the review of these civilian bodies,” Taylor said.

After the governor signs the bill into law, it would take effect on July 1, 2021. Taylor said she anticipates seeing further legislation that will attempt to add sheriff’s departments to the definition of law enforcement during the General Assembly’s January regular session.

An omnibus police reform bill also passed through the General Assembly and awaits the governor’s signature as well. The bill includes a ban on neck restraints; an extension of decertification measures for law enforcement officers; limitations on no knock warrants and law enforcement agencies’ access to military style vehicles and weapons and increased racial sensitivity and de-escalation training in departments statewide.

A bill to eliminate qualified immunity for officers facing misconduct charges did not pass during the special session, but the broader police reform bill includes definitions for prohibitive practices that would fall outside the protection of qualified immunity, Taylor said.

Those actions include use of deadly force during arrest or detention and the failure of law enforcement officers to intervene during a use of deadly force incident.

“By including these definitions or standards in code, it is intended to put into code something against which you can compare law enforcement actions and determine whether qualified immunity would apply to a certain incident or action,” Taylor said.

A piece of legislation that was of particular interest to council was the Marcus Alert Bill, which is named after Marcus-David Peters, a Richmond biology teacher who was shot and killed by police in 2018 while experiencing a mental health crisis.

The bill was passed by the General Assembly and aims to improve the response to mental health crisis calls by creating teams of service provider made up of mental health professionals, recovery specialists and law enforcement officers in support.

Council received a preliminary report from city staff later in the meeting regarding the city’s own attempts to address this issue. Councilor Mo Seifeldein expressed concern that the state-level measures could interfere with what the city is pursuing, but Taylor clarified that bill will not impact council’s intent with local measures.

“I do not believe that anything in the bill … stops us from the direction we are going or the plans that we have currently in the pipeline,” Taylor said.

The program will be rolled out in waves across the state, and localities will have to have plans in place to implement these crisis response teams by July 1, 2021. Localities will not need to have implemented a team by that date.

The General Assembly has also been working to respond to the impacts of the pandemic on both the state budget and communities across the state.

The recommended $134 billion two-year budget decreased funding in several key areas that legislators had included in their original $135 billion budget back in March, prior to the pandemic.

In terms of how the budget will impact the city, the  still includes bonds for Alexandria’s combined sewer outfall projects. The budget also includes the $2.4 million the city requested for restoration and curation of Freedom House, the site of a former slave trading headquarters that the city acquired in March.

The General Assembly has not yet officially approved the budget. The budget process has been placed on hold until after election day because there is language in the budget that is contingent on whether or not a constitutional amendment on the ballot based around redistricting is passed, Taylor said.

Non-budget related COVID relief legislation also passed during the special session, including a bill that allows localities to authorize the creation of outdoor seating that is not contiguous to restaurants.

Taylor described the special session process this year as “exhausting,” “frustrating” and “challenging” but praised the “historic” results of the session.

“As much as I like to complain about special session, it really was an incredible amount of really good work and some things that happened that have put Virginia [at] the forefront of some of these areas of reform and response to COVID,” Taylor said.

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