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No more chokeholds, no-knock warrants, Virginia House says in mostly party-line votes

The passage of the 11 police-overhaul bills, which now must be voted on by the state Senate and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) if they are to go into effect, mark key points in the House Democrats’ legislative agenda for the special session, which began in person on Aug. 18 and has since been conducted online because of the coronavirus pandemic. Democrats won the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly last fall after decades of control by the Republican Party.

Also on Friday, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed into law a package of bills, advanced by Democrats and passed by both chambers last week, that would broaden access to absentee voting, including creating drop boxes for ballots — another key issue for Democrats.

“Virginia is making it easier to vote in the upcoming election—not harder,” Northam tweeted Friday afternoon.

Only one measure Democrats put forward was defeated — a bill that would have allowed victims to sue police if an officer failed to intervene when a victim was deprived of their rights by another officer. That bill was defeated by a single vote.

Republicans attacked the bills as “anti-police,” but Democrats asserted that elected officials ought to listen to their constituents as well as police, many of whom supported some of the bills.

“While people say we’ve been rushing, we’ve been waiting for quite some time,” Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico) said during debates on the bills Thursday. “This is not a war against police. This is a war for justice, for each and every citizen of the Commonwealth.”

Del. Ronnie Campbell (R-Rockbridge), objecting to the proposal to ban police use of neck restraints such as chokeholds, noted that the Senate has amended its bill to allow exceptions if the officer is in fear for his life. Without chokeholds, police would have no option when in a fight but to pull their gun, he said.

But House Democrats would not allow a similar amendment, asserting that police have other options to control suspects.

House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said some members of his party would have supported some of the bills if the majority had been willing to compromise.

“Much of the legislation rammed through today by Democrats had the potential to be thoughtful reforms of how police do businesses,” he said in a statement after Friday’s session. “Sadly, the majority was so bent on punishing law enforcement that they refused to listen to reason.”

The bills that passed the House would:

● ban sexual relations between officers and arrestees;

● eliminate minor pretexts for traffic stops;

● codify the ability of prosecutors to dismiss charges;

● ban no-knock search warrants;

● require any officer to report the misconduct of another;

● require police to stop the use of excessive force by another officer;

● allow decertification of an officer who is fired or resigns due to violation of law or departmental policies and procedures, or during an internal investigation;

● ban the use of chokeholds;

● expand the definition of hate crimes to include false 911 calls or reports to police made on the basis of race, religious conviction, gender, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, color or national origin;

● strengthen review of employment records before an officer is hired;

● and standardize training for officers.

Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria) said the bills were the result of weeks of work throughout the summer. The protests after the shooting of Breonna Taylor in Louisville in March, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May and a violent traffic stop of an African American driver on the Capital Beltway last year should prompt reflection and action on the part of legislators, Herring said.

“Our goal is to prevent tragedies from happening,” she said in an interview Friday. “This is a time when we can turn the crisis into something good.”

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