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Senate Democrats Release Plans for Police Reform

Police officer in helmet and gas mask stands with fingers laced
A police officer guards J. E. B. Stuart Monument during protests on Tuesday (Coleman Jennings/VPM News)

Democrats in Virginia's Senate announced a list of criminal justice proposals on Friday that they plan on introducing in a special session later this summer.

In a virtual press conference, leaders of the caucus said they’ve united behind 28 proposals, including an end to chokeholds and no-knock warrants, banning the hiring of officers who resign or are fired in use-of-force investigations and prohibiting officers from having sex with people they arrest.

Some of the items overlap with  a list unveiled this week by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.

The list doesn’t include some more controversial practices, like ending qualified immunity for officers, which several senators said would involve complicated changes to state law.

“We can’t fix all of it at once, but we can actually make some big strides,” said Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who suggested the special session may last eight or nine days.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) said the work may stretch into next year.

“We know there are some things that are going to need to continue in the 2021 session, and maybe even beyond,” McClellan said.

A spokesman for Senate Republicans declined to comment on the proposals.

Several Senate Democrats said they’d had informal conversations with Gov. Ralph Northam and lawmakers in the House.

Lawmakers in the House, meanwhile, will hold three meetings on police and criminal justice reform in July and August, Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn announced on Friday.

Lawmakers on two panels will take in public comments and debate policies ahead of a special session likely to happen in late August or early September. Topics for the Joint Courts of Justice and Public Safety Committee will include banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, implementing civilian review boards, and police accreditation.

Members of the joint committee can’t take actual votes until then.

It’s unclear if the timeline will satisfy protestors, who have pushed for many of those policies to be implemented without delay.

But Filler-Corn said today’s announcement shows she’s listening. Short of the governor calling a special session before one already discussed for late August, she said the hearings were the best way to get moving.

“I’ve been on the phone and having meetings virtually with so many folks who want to weigh in and realized there’s no reason to wait,” Filler-Corn said. “We can get this committee work underway.”

The public will be able to comment on proposals. Filler-Corn says they’re still working out the logistics of how that will happen online.

She declined to address the specific  policies proposed by the Black caucus, including an end to qualified immunity for police officers.

“We’re going to take an opportunity to look into all of these ideas, and that’s why I think it’s important to get public testimony and input,” Filler-Corn said.

A spokesman for Republican House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) declined to comment on the plans.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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