Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill into law on Wednesday that gives the state attorney general additional powers to investigate unlawful patterns or practices by law enforcement officers and file civil action to stop the misconduct.
Introduced by Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), Senate Bill (SB) 5024 was one of several bills approved by the governor this week.
In a statement published online, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said: “Enabling the Office of the Attorney general to conduct ‘pattern and practice’ investigations will give my office the ability to help identify and put a stop to police misconduct and other unconstitutional policing practices.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) normally handles these types of investigations, but Herring argued it’s important the state be allowed to do so because the DOJ has stopped performing those duties under President Trump.
Lucas said now that the bill has been adopted “communities around Virginia will finally get the due process that they deserve.”
Specifically, the bill states that the attorney general can take action when he has reasonable cause to believe law enforcement officers or agencies have engaged in conduct that deprives a person of their rights, privileges and immunities protected under state and federal law.
SB 5024 is just one of the bills the Democratic-controlled General Assembly passed during its lengthy special session dealing with police reforms.
Other pieces of legislation include: making it easier to decertify officers involved in wrongdoing, establishing minimum statewide training standards for law enforcement agencies, officers must intervene if they witness a colleague using excessive force, prohibiting roadside stops for smell of marijuana and other traffic offenses, banning the use of choke holds and no-knock warrants in certain situations and giving localities the option to create law enforcement civilian review boards.
These bills and other criminal justice measures have received a mix of positive and negative opinions from law enforcement agencies and associations.
“[The General Assembly] tried to do a lot more than the session really allowed to happen because we didn’t get a chance to really take the time to make sure the [different] legislation doesn’t have any problems,” Dana Schrad, Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police (VACP) executive director, said in an interview with The Virginia Star. “We’re still finding problems with several of the bills.
“We’re hoping to get some of these bills in a more appropriate position, that they are safe for the public, safe for law enforcement.”
Schrad said the VACP supports many of the issues police reform bills aim to solve such as decertification for officers engaged in misconduct, enhancing hiring standards, accreditation for all agencies and others.
She also mentioned lingering concerns in two key areas: one being limiting traffic stops and the other having to do with the Senate’s omnibus reform bill.
“The remaining area that needs to be fixed deals with no-knock search warrants because in an attempt to make the search warrant law more stringent, [legislators] have made it more dangerous for both officers and third parties,” Schrad said.
Earlier this week, a group of Republican state senators discussed some of the policing reform bills on the John Fredericks Radio Show, largely repeating what conservative lawmakers in the House and Senate argued throughout the special session.
“I think with all of these law enforcement bills, these criminal justice reform bills that were passing and the messaging that we’re sending to our law enforcement, especially right now, we’ve seen what’s happened to them this summer,” Sen. Jen Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) said. “We relied on those guys; those are the people we call. They’re not the best-paid profession out there, but they do so much. They keep our communities safe; they keep our families safe, they keep our neighborhoods safe.”
The three state senators specifically harped on the civilian oversight body legislation.
“It was a horrible bill,” Sen. Bill DeSteph (R-Virginia Beach) said. “We have a police review board now in Virginia Beach that makes a recommendation to the chief of police. What you’re doing is usurping the authority of the chief of police. Not a smart thing. You have a chief of police for a reason.”
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Jacob Taylor is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Digital Network. Follow Jacob on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]
Background Photo “Virginia Capitol” by Martin Falbisoner. CC BY-SA 3.0.