Instead of taking small steps to solve a big problem, the Virginia Senate passed a package of sweeping legislative reforms on Thursday that would transform how law enforcement operates in Virginia.
The measure encompasses matters from standards of conduct and use of deadly force to the execution of search warrants, reasons for stopping drivers or frisking pedestrians, and the equipment law enforcement may use to control potentially violent protests.
The Senate debated almost every aspect of Senate Bill 5030 — an omnibus bill introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, “to bring equity into Virginia policing” — before approving it on a 21-19 party-line vote.
Locke’s legislation would accomplish in one swoop many of the same changes the House is trying to achieve with multiple bills that are on their way to the Senate for consideration.
Locke, chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus and a senior member of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, called the legislation an attempt to make changes to the way law enforcement operates to avoid high-profile incidents of alleged police misconduct, especially in treatment of African Americans, that sparked public unrest in Richmond and across the country after the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
“We have blinders on if we think Virginia is immune to misconduct and the things that have happened in other parts of the country,” she told the Senate.
Republicans resolutely opposed the bill while praising lawmakers’ efforts to improve it. They also raised questions about whether the bill would unintentionally make police officers liable to civil lawsuits for their conduct, even though the issue of sovereign or qualified immunity for law enforcement was one of the few big law enforcement issues the legislation did not directly address.
“That just scares the heck out of me!” said Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, who warned, “There’s no way officers can operate without that kind of immunity.”
The Senate already had balked at attempts to eliminate qualified immunity that prevents officers from being sued for alleged misconduct in most cases. Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, a lawyer who helped shape the bill, said, “By making these changes to the Code of Virginia, by clarifying what is legal and what is not legal, we are taking qualified immunity out of the mix.”
Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, also sought to reassure members that “we’re not going to do away with qualified immunity,” but he challenged the Senate to confront issues of racial injustice in policing.
“We have a pretty serious problem in this country and it didn’t just start with George Floyd,” he said.
(Later Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected a bill sponsored by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, to end qualified immunity for police.)
Republicans focused on what they considered flaws in the omnibus bill, such as a prohibition against local and state law enforcement acquiring surplus military equipment from the federal government, including armored vehicles they said are often used to rescue people in flooding or deep snows. They also warned against the potential consequences of proposed limits on no-knock search warrants.
They generally decried what they called a negative message to law enforcement that they said would cripple the ability of police and sheriff’s departments to recruit and retain officers. At the same time, they said they would support changes to make it easier to get rid of officers who violate standards of professional conduct, especially in using deadly force.
“We have to ensure we get bad cops off the street,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham.
Obenshain faulted the legislation for failing to prevent law enforcement agencies from joining unions for collective bargaining, a prohibition the Senate had considered and rejected the previous day. He also questioned whether the proposed process for decertifying officers from serving in law enforcement could be circumvented by labor contracts.
However, Republicans saved their strongest ire for one of their own — Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. Chase does not caucus with other Senate Republicans who had rebuked her publicly for her profane confrontation last year with a Capitol Police officer. The officer, an African American woman, had stopped Chase from parking in a secure area next to the Pocahontas Building next to Capitol Square.
Chase, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor next year, opposed Locke’s bill with the declaration, “I stand with law enforcement,” but then referred to her use of a bodyguard and her confrontation with the Capitol police officer.
“I know what it’s like to be a victim,” she said, adding that the officer had left the Capitol Police.
Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, responded with praise for the Division of Capitol Police. “Thank you for what you do for us,” he said. “Most of us really value you.”
Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said in a floor speech that he was “appalled” by Chase’s comments and what he called her implication that the officer had left Capitol Police because of the incident. He called the suggestion “an absolute unequivocal misrepresentation” because he said the officer had taken a higher paying job in federal law enforcement.
“It is unbelievable what I heard her state in light of her behavior and conduct,” Norment said.
Chase responded that “no due process was given to this legislator” in the incident.
In describing Locke’s omnibus bill, Democrats said the measure would:
• prohibit “no knock warrants” and use of choke holds;
• ban law officers from having sex with people who have been arrested;
• prevent the hiring of officers who had been fired or who had resigned from a previous job during investigation of their use of force;
• create a process for decertifying officers;
• establish a code of conduct for using deadly force, such as attempts to de-escalate confrontation or the firing of warning shots;
• require officers to intervene against unlawful use of force by other officers;
• require law agencies to report on use of force as well as collect data on traffic stops and other policing;
• and tie additional state funding for police departments to their records on use of force.
Republicans said the omnibus approach prevented them from supporting aspects of the legislation they liked.
“Although it is an exceptional piece of legislation, there are some warts on it that could have been worked out” with more bipartisan cooperation, Norment said.
Democrats responded that they had tried the piecemeal approach before without success. This time, they said they brought together law enforcement and other community partners early in the summer to shape a package of reforms.