Felonies for chokeholds? Civilian review everywhere? Virginia Democrats divided on details of police reform

Felonies for chokeholds? Civilian review everywhere? Virginia Democrats divided on details of police reform
Virginia State Capitol. (Source: Capital News Service)

Lawmakers in the Virginia General Assembly are on track to give citizen boards brand new authority to investigate and discipline local police officers accused of misconduct.

But while Democratic majorities in the House and Senate agree the panels should have teeth, the two chambers are still at odds over key details, including whether to make them mandatory in every locality or leave it up to local governments to decide whether to establish the bodies.

“It was the thought of the House that we don’t want to leave any jurisdictions out of this process,” House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, told Senate lawmakers last week, urging them to adopt the across-the-state approach passed by the House rather than the Senate’s version, which allows but does not require local governments to set up civilian panels.

Versions of the House-Senate debate have played out throughout the special legislative session, which convened a month ago and has seen the two chambers largely agree on big-picture police reforms but differ when it comes to questions of breadth and scope.

The House has often, though not always, advanced bills that go further than their Senate counterparts, banning more kinds of military equipment, issuing more statewide mandates and creating harsher penalties for police who violate new rules. The Senate, meanwhile, amended its sweeping police omnibus early in the session in response to concerns voiced by police groups.

The dynamic has not gone unnoticed by advocates, who worry promised reforms are getting watered down, and law enforcement groups, who at a recent news conference offered praise for Senate Democrats and sharp criticism for House lawmakers.

“The Virginia Senate has reached out to us and has listened to our thoughts and suggestions and has, in fact, included many of our ideas in the legislation that has been before them,” said Wayne Huggins, a former state police superintendent who now leads a group representing the agency’s employees. “On the other hand, the House of Delegates has largely ignored our thoughts and consideration, and they have passed several pieces of legislation that in reality will only hurt and impede law enforcement.”

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