Virginia lawmakers get mixed reviews on police reform efforts

Virginia lawmakers get mixed reviews on police reform efforts
Thousands of people marched through downtown Richmond on June 1, 2020. The peaceful demonstration was one of the largest gatherings in the city since George Floyd's death in Minneapolis. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

A special legislative session largely devoted to police reform in Virginia ended Friday with law enforcement groups sounding more comfortable with the package of bills that passed than activists who had been pushing for sweeping change following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“At the end of the day, we didn’t make out so bad,” said John Jones, director of the Virginia Sheriffs' Association, observing that most of the legislation that worried his members and provoked allegations of anti-police motives were either significantly amended or voted down entirely.

A bill that would have banned military equipment was narrowed to a tight list of surplus items like bayonets that police say they don’t use anyway. A prohibition on tear gas was replaced by training rules. And a mandate that police report colleagues who break the law died in a committee hearing.

And measures police groups did support largely sailed through, including an end of session gift from lawmakers to frontline officers: a $500 one-time bonus for some officers — which Democratic leaders framed as an olive branch to police agencies and an explicit rejection of protest calls to “defund police.”

“When the whole thing started, it looked like a disaster,” Dana Schrad, the director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said, calling some of the bills introduced at the beginning of the legislative session demoralizing and misguided. “I think we’ve been fortunate to reach a lot of compromises that we’re a lot more comfortable with.”

‘An opportunity to do transformational work’

Advocates on the reform side claimed their own wins, crediting lawmakers for passing bills aimed at limiting police stops for minor infractions, banning no-knock warrants and allowing local governments to establish civilian review boards with investigative authority.

But they expressed disappointment at both the decision to grant bonuses (“I wonder and worry what message this is sending … at a moment when we are calling for greater accountability,” asked Kenneth Gilliam, the policy director at New Virginia Majority) and the overall trajectory of the special session.

“They had an opportunity to do transformational work and chose instead to achieve some positive incremental work,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga.

For people on both sides of the debate, a bill that had initially flown under the legislative radar is getting the most post-session attention: a measure that will prohibit police from pulling people over and initiating searches for a range of minor traffic infractions.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.