Senate lawmakers on Tuesday approved legislation to further empower civilian panels tasked with overseeing local police departments, adopting a more moderate approach than the House and teeing up a reconciliation fight between the two chambers.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, would allow localities to create oversight panels made up of civilians that would have subpoena power to investigate police agencies and issue binding disciplinary action against officers or department employees.
Unlike the House version, the Senate measure does not require localities to create the panels. It simply creates a framework within which any that are created would operate.
Passage of the measure followed an impassioned debate of nearly two hours that saw Democrats argue in favor of more accountability for police, while Republicans decried that the measure would give too much power to regular citizens. The measure passed in a 20-15 vote.
The creation and empowerment of so-called civilian review boards was a key demand of protesters in Richmond and elsewhere in the state, who argued that law enforcement agencies are often left to police themselves with little accountability.
“What this bill is simply doing is giving those CRBs the opportunity to have some degree of authority and to have the power to enact the will of the public,” Hashmi said. “It seems to be the thought that we’re going to have some local yokels sitting on CRBs, untrained, unprofessional, unguided by any of their own experiences or their professional expertise. As we full well know, that’s simply not the case.”
Republicans, who broadly opposed the bill, argued against it on many fronts: that the legislation gave too much power to citizens, that it would drive away good candidates from police forces, and that it would reward violent protesters while eschewing police officers.
Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, called the bill “really, really, really dangerous.” Stuart criticized the bill for leaving it up to localities to mandate any training for members, and suggested the boards would be made up of people eager to unfairly target police.
He also asserted that the measure does not limit the subpoena power.
“I have a good idea about how these boards will be comprised,” Stuart said. “They’re going to go on witch hunts for people.”
Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, said Hashmi’s bill would embolden people hoping to do harm to police and cited the shooting Saturday of two Los Angeles police deputies by an unknown assailant.
“What we are doing here erodes confidence in law enforcement. ... It emboldens the criminal,” Stanley said. “We are allowing mob rule to take over.”
Democrats argued that the bill would help restore confidence in law enforcement by people of color, particularly Black men, who are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement.
“The Black community is saying, we are sick and tired of law enforcement officers — not all of them — killing Black folks, especially young Black folks,” said Sen. Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake.
“When will it be our time? When will someone stand up for us? When will this stuff stop?” he said. “We are sick and tired of Black folks being killed.”
Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, said the bill isn’t intended to unfairly target law enforcement.
“As I listened to the speakers today, you’d believe that those of us who support these police reform efforts are anti-law enforcement,” said Lucas, noting that her first husband, who is deceased, and her second husband, as well as her son and grandson, have served in law enforcement.
“I’ve been in love with law enforcement. I’ve slept with them!”
Lucas added: “We want to make them better. We need to make sure Black and brown people feel safe when law enforcement is around.”
The House measure, introduced by Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, cleared that chamber along party lines, 53-45, earlier this month.
The House legislation would compel localities to create the civilian review panels, and, like Hashmi’s bill, would empower the board to investigate and issue findings related to the “use of force by a law-enforcement officer, death or serious injury to any person held in custody, serious abuse of authority or misconduct, allegedly discriminatory stops” and more.