Legislation intended to bring reform to policing and criminal justice is Virginia - including a ban on no-knock warrants, and stricter training and performance requirements for police officers - will soon become law in the state, following a summer of demonstrations over police brutality and systemic racism.
Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday signed more than a dozen measures sent to his desk by the Democrat-controlled House and Senate, which he described as a "tremendous step forward in rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."
“Virginia is better, more just, and more equitable with these laws on our books,” Northam said in a statement.
The measures Northam signed into law Wednesday are intended to boost oversight over law enforcement officers while restricting chances for abuse of power, in response to nationwide calls for police accountability. Virginia lawmakers, however, did not respond to calls from protesters for some or all police funding to be shifted to social services.
Virginia will become the third state to ban no-knock search warrants like the one Louisville police officers used on the night they fatally shot Breonna Taylor, during a botched raid in March. The Virginia legislation also bans criminal search warrants from being executed at night.
Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, said in an interview Wednesday she is proud “that the commonwealth is leading the way,” on this policy.
“This will ensure that [Breonna Taylor’s] life has value and meaning beyond what we're seeing from the justice system,” said Aird, who introduced the legislation in the House. Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, did so in the Senate.
Also set to become law is legislation expanding the powers of civilian review boards implemented by localities across the state to oversee law enforcement agencies. The legislation, sponsored by House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, will allow those boards to subpoena testimony and documents, and to issue binding disciplinary actions against law enforcement officers and staff.
Advocates for such boards, including the ACLU of Virginia, had proposed they be mandatory in localities across the commonwealth. The cleared measure does not make them mandatory, it simply clarifies their role and powers for localities that choose to implement them.
Through the bills signed Wednesday, Virginia will also:
* Prohibit law enforcement agencies from acquiring certain military-style equipment, like grenades, weaponized aircraft and high-caliber firearms, though agencies can procure waivers.
* Create uniform, minimum training standards for new law enforcement officers and those already on the force, including education on systemic racism and unconscious bias, de-escalation and crisis intervention.
* Require that law enforcement agencies and jails procure the employment histories of new hires, a policy intended to mitigate the possibility of an officer leaving an agency to avoid being fired for wrongdoing and seeking a job elsewhere.
* Make it easier for the state to permanently decertify police officers who commit wrongdoing, preventing them from ever serving on a force again in the state.
* Expand the Criminal Justice Services Board to include representatives for civil rights groups and communities of color.
* Ban the use of chokeholds by police unless it is “immediately necessary to protect the law-enforcement officer or another person.”
* Require law enforcement officers to intervene if they witness another officer engaged or trying to engage in excessive use of force.
* Make it illegal for law enforcement officers to have sex with people in their custody.
Northam also signed legislation to allow some convicted felons who are terminally ill to petition for parole, and allowing some state prison inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses to cut their sentences short by following prison rules and engaging in rehabilitation programs.
“The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery woke Americans to a longstanding problem that has existed for generations — and we know Virginia is not immune,” Locke said in a statement. “These are transformative bills that will make Virginians’ lives better, and I’m so proud to see them signed into law.”