Virginia lawmakers will convene on Tuesday for a high-pressure special session dedicated to confronting the impact of COVID-19 on the state, and reacting to calls for police and criminal justice reform.
Democratic lawmakers, who control the House and the Senate, will enter the session with loose consensus on policies they hope will curb excessive use of force by police, including greater accountability for officers and departments.
Gov. Ralph Northam is supportive of many of the measures, but his administration plans to adopt a more restrained approach on the topic, which advisers say is based on the budget constraints resulting from the pandemic and the need for better data on Virginia policing.
Republicans are expected to oppose legislation imperiling police funding and curtailing police officers’ ability to act when they perceive a threat. Nevertheless, the parties might find compromise on some police-related measures, including banning chokeholds and making it easier to permanently remove officers with records of egregious misconduct — measures that have support from many in law enforcement.
It’s all playing out amid a pandemic that left a $2.7 billion hole in the state’s projected revenues — a hit that will force lawmakers to reconsider their planned spending, including raises for public employees, according to a budget proposal that Northam will formally unveil on Tuesday.
Northam’s budget also includes measures to address the economic impact of COVID-19 on Virginians, including a $71 million request to offer relief to people facing housing instability and evictions.
Lawmakers have a long agenda for a special session, and speculation about how long it will go ranges from two weeks to a month. It’ll be the second time this year — the April veto session was the first — that Virginia lawmakers meet outside of the state’s Capitol due to the pandemic’s constraints.
The Senate plans to meet again at the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, while leaders in the House of Delegates have teased at a session that will be mostly online, except for a gathering at VCU’s Siegel Center on Tuesday.
That approach could rankle Republicans in the House, who believe the online format could hurt the ease and transparency of the proceedings.
Criminal justice, policing
The Northam administration, as well as Democrats in the House and Senate, is championing legislation that would make it easier to decertify police officers who misbehave on the job.
A bill championed by the Northam administration would allow for police officers to be decertified — or permanently removed from the force in Virginia — for violation of state and department policy, including excessive use of force.
Under current state law, a law enforcement officer can be decertified only if they plead guilty or are convicted of any felony, certain misdemeanors or a sexual offense or domestic assault; flout training requirements; or test positive or refuse to submit to a drug screening.
“The governor talks about making sure we have a police force people can believe in. So that whole decertification process is going to be a focus for us during the special session,” said Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran in an interview.
The details of the legislation are still in the works, but Democrats in both chambers have said they want to see it compel law enforcement agencies to make sure the officers they hire have not been decertified.
Democrats in the House and Senate plan to introduce legislation calling for the creation of Citizen Review Panels to study police misconduct at the locality level, a key demand from protests in Richmond after the May 25 death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.
“Every locality should have a panel, absolutely, and they should be uniform,” said Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, in an interview. “There is a role for the General Assembly to require that they be in place.”
Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, who is introducing a measure on the topic in the Senate, said her bill would give the boards power to subpoena documents and witness testimony, and to produce “public reports and make binding decisions.”
“It involves a process by which non-police members can regularly provide input into police department operations,” Hashmi said during a call with reporters.
The Northam administration is adopting a more cautious approach. Moran said the governor’s office will champion a bill that would call on the Department of Criminal Justice Services to develop “model policy” for Citizen Review Panels and study the topic.
Moran said the administration is not ready to throw its weight behind policy mandating their creation in every locality.
“The [Department of Criminal Justice Services] study will help us make that determination,” he said. “That might be premature to answer at this point.”
Democrats in the House and Senate will also back legislation to: ban chokeholds and other lethal restraints; make it more difficult for law enforcement agencies to obtain search warrants that allow officers to enter a home without knocking; ban sexual encounters between officers and arrestees; empower the Attorney General’s Office to investigate police departments with patterns of misconduct; require that officers intervene if a fellow officer is engaging in misconduct; and standardize police training.
Democrats in both chambers are also weighing legislation to curb supplemental police funding for departments that are found to have a “disproportionate” number of use-of-force incidents in their jurisdiction.
Ongoing tensions between House and Senate Democrats will be on display during the special session, particularly in the area of criminal justice reform.
Senate Democrats on Friday rolled out an agenda that includes expanding jury sentencing in Virginia, eliminating police searches based on the smell of marijuana, and giving prosecutors more power to enter into plea agreements for certain offenders to avoid convictions — proposals that are not included in the House’s plan.
“The Senate felt the entire criminal justice system is broken, not just policing. The House’s focus is only on policing and not much else,” said Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, who led the Senate’s efforts on policing and criminal justice ahead of the special session.
The House last year referred the issue of jury sentencing to the state’s crime commission for further study. Sen. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, who is introducing the legislation in the Senate, said the time to act is now.
Jake Rubenstein, a spokesman for House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, said the House is looking forward to working with the Senate on these issues throughout the session.
GOP warns of ‘overreach’
Republicans are expecting to rail against legislation that would risk police funding or shift resources elsewhere, and legislation that would allow people to obtain parole under good behavior or health conditions.
“From our viewpoint, we have a lot of fear that there’ll be an overreach there — cutting funding and not funding adequately law enforcement is something we’re fearful of,” said Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, a former speaker of the House who is exploring a run for governor next year.
“I think there are some ideas that have merit. Changing the decertification rules, for example. We need to see the specific legislation, but that’s something that most police chiefs want to see,” Cox said.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, said in an interview that his caucus will be wary of what he calls the “systematic deprivation of discretion by law enforcement officers to make split-second decisions that could make the difference between them coming home to their families at night.”
Obenshain said Republicans in the Senate are willing to consider some legislation but will oppose a massive bill that loops in most of the measures Democrats are backing on police reform.
“It’s simply rewarding the rioters, and I don’t believe that’s what ordinary Virginians, who are worried about educating their kids, earning a living, keeping their community safe, are worried about,” Obenshain said.
Obenshain and Cox said the GOP would likely oppose measures on parole. A broad swath of GOP leaders are calling for Northam to remove the members of the Virginia Parole Board after a watchdog report found issues with how they handled the release of a man who was convicted of killing a Richmond police officer in 1979.
Lawmakers will be grappling with a $2.7 billion budget shortfall, a result of COVID-19, that will leave behind a free college plan, spending on preschool and raises for state employees.
Still, Northam is planning $175 million in new spending to help shore up people facing housing instability and to expand access to broadband — both tied to the COVID-19 crisis.
Northam is proposing $71 million in new spending on housing relief and $47 million in new spending on broadband, on top of money that is already part of the base budget.
Northam — who successfully sought an evictions moratorium until Sept. 7 from the Virginia Supreme Court — is also proposing a pause in all evictions until at least April 30. That pause would be tied to a requirement that landlords and tenants work together on a payment plan and seek out financial assistance.
Northam is also seeking a moratorium on disconnections for electric, water and natural gas utilities until 60 days after the current state of emergency ends. The current state of emergency related to COVID-19 does not have an expiration date.
A group of GOP House lawmakers, including Cox, are working on a series of budget amendments they say would help school districts and parents weather the pandemic.
They plan to propose a budget amendment that would divert $100 million in federal emergency funding toward vouchers for families that would cover certain education expenses, like new technology, child care, tutoring and more.
They are also proposing 14 days of paid leave for teachers who experience challenges related to COVID-19, including quarantining; more funding for school nurses; and reimbursements for school districts seeking rapid antigen tests for COVID-19.
“I’m very disappointed that we’re not having a robust discussion and looking at solving that problem,” said Cox, referring to returning children back to in-person school.
“There are a lot of complex issues, but you can’t just throw up your hands,” said Cox, a retired government teacher. “I hope these proposals engender a discussion about how this is being left out of the priorities.”
Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, who is running for governor, is also introducing a bill related to COVID-19 and schooling that would direct school boards to disclose sanitation and health measures for the 2020-21 school year on their websites.