Common Ground, Battle Lines Over Police Reform In Virginia Emerge In Public Hearing Police chiefs say they support making it easier to decertify officers for excessive use of force, although doing away with qualified immunity may be a tougher hurdle.
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NPR logo Common Ground, Battle Lines Over Police Reform In Virginia Emerge In Public Hearing

Common Ground, Battle Lines Over Police Reform In Virginia Emerge In Public Hearing

Norfolk police chief Larry Boone, top center, addresses lawmakers Wednesday during a virtual hearing on policing reform ahead of a summer session. Screenshot of/policing reform hearing hide caption

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Screenshot of/policing reform hearing

A Virginia House of Delegates hearing on policing on Wednesday showed some possible common ground between reform-minded Democrats and police departments, although it also revealed likely battle lines as the Democratic-controlled General Assembly prepares for a summer session focusing on criminal justice.

Lawmakers and some police chiefs seemed to agree that a mechanism barring bad officers from moving out of one department to another is needed, but also disagreed on whether officers should face more legal liability for allegations of misconduct.

Del. Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) opened the session — the first of three ahead of an Aug. 18 special session on policing — speaking of what she described as the terror Black residents feel when they are stopped by police.

"A stop means there is an immediate reaction, that we must recall what our parents taught us, so that we might survive," said Herring, chair of the House Democratic Caucus and a member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

She added that while she did not "mean to suggest that all police officers are bad actors," reform was necessary. "There have been inequities in our system for hundreds of years. This is where that ends."

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Democratic lawmakers are largely drawing from proposals the Black Caucus published in June. Senate Democrats have already issued their priorities for police reform, but House Democrats say they will shape their package using input from police, civil rights advocates and the public. In that spirit, Wednesday's first speakers were Virginia police brass.

John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs Association, told lawmakers that there was a statewide personnel shortage among sheriffs' departments, including some 1,000 positions in law enforcement, jails and courts. He noted that deputy sheriffs earn about $33,000 a year and urged the General Assembly to examine its pre-COVID funding for law enforcement.

"With everything being discussed, people talk about defunding," Jones said. "I think we've already been defunded."

He also addressed recent calls to bring more civilian oversight to sheriff's departments; Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman, for example, has resisted civilian review of his office.

"We think the sheriff's model for a law enforcement agency already has the ultimate citizens' review board because the sheriff is elected," Jones said.

Possible Agreement On 'Decertifying' Bad Cops

Still, he had some suggestions for reform, including the creation of a database of decertified police officers that would prevent them from being hired again. He also supported requiring officers to intervene if a colleague was engaged in unlawful behavior, and enhancing training for crisis intervention.

Expanding the basis for stripping police officers of their certification drew wide support among other police leaders. Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone explained that officers could lose their certification if they were convicted of felonies, certain Class One misdemeanors, domestic assault, and if they refuse to submit to drug screenings. However, he added that officers could keep their certification if they were found to have used excessive force.

"Far too often, I will fire an officer for excessive force, and they are afforded to go to a neighboring agency and clearly we have to be able to do something to put control measures in place to stop that," Boone said.

In the absence of a database on officer misconduct, Boone said he sometimes tipped off fellow police chiefs if he knew they were considering a problematic applicant. "I will say, 'You probably need to come take a look at his file,'" he said.

Boone, who is African American, said officers in his department cultivated diversity by attending gay pride parades and recruiting at universities and in the military. He said the killing of George Floyd would likely dampen his ability to recruit.

"I've been out here marching with these kids and talking with these kids and there's not a real good feel for law enforcement," Boone said.

The incoming head of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, Herndon Police Chief Maggie DeBoard, pointed to a package of proposals the VACP submitted to Northam. They include broadening decertification, as well as helping police agencies achieve accreditation from either state or national authorities, which ensure common standards in use of force, bias-based policing and mental illness response. DeBoard said only 130 of Virginia's 365 agencies are accredited.

"If you're accredited you already have progressive policies in place," she said.

DeBoard urged lawmakers to pass new laws to require law enforcement agencies to check the performance files of job applicants from a previous agency. She also supported enhancing police response to mental health crises by dispatching mental health counselors as part of a "co-response" team.

An End To Qualified Immunity?

The broad police consensus over at least the idea of decertification dovetails with the recommendations put forth Wednesday by Virginia ACLU legislative director Ashna Khanna. She said that over the past two decades Virginia has only decertified 33 officers, while other states have stripped thousands of their certifications.

However, Khanna pushed further, advocating for an end to qualified immunity for officers. That's when officers are offered broad protection for their actions on the job, provided they are not clearly violating standards, laws and constitutional protections. John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs Association, said he would not be comfortable with ending it.

Floyd's killing has tightened the focus on problematic police behavior in Virginia. On July 15, the Virginia State Police announced it had launched a criminal investigation after video footage surfaced showing State Trooper Charles Hewitt using abusive language and wrestling Derrick Thompson, who is Black, out of his car during a traffic stop last year. Col. Gary Settle, Virginia State Police superintendent, said at the time that Hewitt's conduct was "not in agreement with the established standards of conduct required of a Virginia trooper."

On Wednesday, Settle announced that the state police were close to presenting its findings from the investigation into Hewitt. However, Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) questioned whether the public would find out the results if there was not a conviction, and called for more transparency.

"How do we close the loop? How does the complainant, how does the public learn the result of the investigations?" Levine told DCist/WAMU after the hearing.

Criminal justice reform has eluded Democrats this year. The party faced criticism when it did not use its new majority to fully overhaul the criminal justice system during the regular session. For instance, while lawmakers passed the Virginia Community Policing Act that requires law enforcement to collect demographic data on people stopped, they they did not reinstate parole, expand expungement, or raise public defender pay, among other reforms that advocates hoped for, according to an analysis by Virginia Mercury.

On Wednesday, public speakers pointed to that gap. Richard Walker, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Bridging the Gap in Virginia, urged lawmakers to carve a path for expungement of records and for restoring voting rights to prisoners.

"In this past General Assembly, I was so disheartened," he said.

This summer, the atmosphere of racial justice protests has injected new momentum into the calls for change.

Eleven Democratic Commonwealth's Attorneys announced support for some reforms including creating a path for expungement; eliminating mandatory minimum sentences; and requiring that a judge, not a magistrate, approve a no-knock warrant.

The House of Delegates holds its next public hearing on July 29 with a focus on training for law enforcement officers; the public can submit questions or request to speak in advance.

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