RICHMOND —Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday announced that he’d signed several bills meant to overhaul policing and the criminal justice system, which the General Assembly passed in a special session called amid a national uproar triggered by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
Northam (D) signed into law bills that ban chokeholds and “no-knock” warrants — which have allowed police to enter a home without announcing themselves — except in the most extreme circumstances. That makes Virginia only the third state — behind Oregon and Florida — to ban those warrants, Northam said.
He signed bills to make it easier to decertify police officers involved in wrongdoing, prohibit police from acquiring certain surplus military equipment, and establish minimum training standards for law enforcement agencies statewide, including instruction on de-escalation techniques and sensitivity to racial bias and mental illness.
Northam also signed legislation requiring officers who witness a colleague using excessive force to intervene, and bills outlawing sexual relations between law enforcement and people in their custody — something already prohibited in many states.
“Too many families, in Virginia and across our nation, live in fear of being hurt or killed by police,” Northam said in a written statement. “These new laws represent a tremendous step forward in rebuilding trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
Northam initially planned to call the special session to adjust the state’s two-year, $135 billion state budget to reflect a projected $2.8 billion shortfall caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But amid protests following Floyd’s death, he added police and criminal justice issues to the agenda.
Some measures won bipartisan support. But Democrats, who took control of the House and Senate in January, were able to push the rest through over the objections of Republicans, who said some measures went too far. Senate Republican leaders did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
Law enforcement groups have had mixed reactions. Wayne Huggins, executive director of the Virginia State Police Association, has praised efforts to improve training but has said no-knock warrants are needed at times to prevent the loss of life or the destruction of evidence. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The no-knock warrant ban stemmed from the shooting death of Breonna Taylor in March, when Louisville police broke down her apartment door in the middle of the night and her boyfriend, mistaking officers for intruders, opened fire. Police shot back and Taylor was killed.
“Sometimes they [police] say, ‘We did knock and announce,’ but they’re basically announcing as they break the door down,” said Taryn Merkl, senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “That practice is very dangerous for the people in the premises but also for the officers themselves.”
Merkl thinks no-knock warrants might be justified in extreme circumstances, as the new Virginia law will allow.
“We should not be valuing evidence collection over human life,” she said. “If, however, you’re going to arrest somebody who is very dangerous or jumping out the window, there’s a different calculus.”
Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said she was pleased to see the bills signed into law, although she wished some measures had gone further.
“We were hoping for transformational change. I’m not quite sure we got there,” she said. “But there were lots of good things that did happen that will bring greater transparency and accountability to policing in Virginia.”
The Senate wrapped most of its policing measures in one sweeping bill, while the House tackled the same issues with separate bills. Northam signed the Senate omnibus bill and amended a few others, in one case with a technical change to make the House bill on minimum training standards line up with the Senate version.
His made a more substantive amendment to the House bill banning the acquisition of certain surplus military equipment. His amendment, if accepted by the legislature, is intended to make clear that police may seek a waiver to obtain military vehicles if they are sought for search-and-rescue purposes.
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Northam signed identical House and Senate bills giving localities the option to create civilian review boards to oversee police — a measure that will not apply to sheriff’s departments. The governor also approved a Senate bill to allow certain terminally ill prison inmates to petition for compassionate release. He amended legislation to increase earned-sentencing credits for prisoners, proposing a six-month delay to give the Department of Corrections time to implement the change.
Last week, Northam signed legislation giving the state’s attorney general the power to investigate allegations of systemic racism in law enforcement agencies and to restore the practice of requiring judges to dismiss criminal charges when both prosecution and defense favor that. He also signed a bill increasing the penalty for targeting someone with a false police report based on the individual’s race, religion, gender, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, color or national origin.
Also last week, he amended House and Senate bills to prohibit law enforcement from making traffic stops for certain physical defects or searching them based on an alleged whiff of marijuana — minor infractions that, advocates said, police have sometimes used as pretexts for racially motivated stops. Northam amended the legislation to ensure officers still may pull over someone driving at night without headlights or brake lights.
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Northam has yet to act on other bills that arrived on his desk after those. That includes legislation to create a “MARCUS Alert,” which would create “community care teams” led by mental health professionals to respond along with police to emergency calls related to mental health crises.
Another bill awaiting action would allow defendants convicted in a jury trial to be sentenced by a judge. They were among the last bills passed in the special session that concluded Oct. 16.
Read more: [A jury sentenced him to 74 years in prison. Some now say it wasn’t their choice.]