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Northam Signs Bill Strengthening AG’s Power to Investigative Police

Mark Herring stands at press conference
Mark Herring at a press conference in 2019. (Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Wednesday he’s signed a bill that would empower the state attorney general to investigate patterns of misconduct by law enforcement officers. Advocates like Attorney General Mark Herring, a fellow Democrat, argued the law is necessary to prevent practices like repeated use of excessive force, illegal searches, or biased policing. 

The federal Department of Justice previously played a more active role in investigating those cases and negotiating “consent decrees” that attempted to force changes to policing in cities like Baltimore and Chicago. But Herring said the department had taken a hands off approach under the Trump administration.

“We used to be able to count on the federal government to be a reliable partner in these kinds of investigations, but under the Trump Administration they have all but ceased, which is why it’s so important that my office can do these kinds of investigations at the state level,” Herring said in a statement.

The law allows the attorney general to enter a conciliation agreement with a locality, and to withhold state funds if a court determines the locality has failed to abide by its terms.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives included broader investigative powers for state attorney generals in their “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” they passed in June, but the bill stalled in the GOP-majority Senate.

Northam also signed legislation increasing penalties for filing a false report to police based on a person’s race, sexual orientation, disability, and several other protected categories. He’s still reviewing several other criminal proposals, including one that would allow civilian review boards across the state.

Some of the legislation Northam signed will go into effect immediately. That includes legislation that would require the Virginia Department of Health to publicly list schools and nursing homes with COVID-19 outbreaks online -- something they’ve so far resisted doing.

Northam also signed legislation that would set up state health standards and allow state health inspectors to enter immigrant detention facilities used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Northam appealed to the Trump administration to send inspectors after a large COVID-19 outbreak hit an ICE facility in Farmville in August.

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