Virginia House of Delegates approves bills making it easier to remove Confederate statues and eliminating qualified immunity for police

That bill, part of a package of legislation overhauling police oversight, failed last week when a couple of Democrats voted against their majority. Del. Ibraheem S. Samirah (D-Fairfax) said he voted against it to try to add language limiting local funding for police, but he dropped that effort Tuesday and asked that the bill be reconsidered. It passed 49 to 45 with two abstentions.

The House also voted to give the state attorney general authority to conduct “pattern or practice” investigations of local police departments if they are alleged to be systematically violating the rights of citizens.

All the bills will head next to the state Senate, which has already killed its own version of a qualified immunity measure.

The statues bill removes the requirement that a local government wait 30 days and hold a public hearing before voting on the removal of a memorial. It passed on a vote of 54 to 43, with all Republicans voting against it along with one Democrat.

Del. Delores L. McQuinn (D-Richmond) sponsored the bill to address what she called “the safety issue” after protesters began tearing down Confederate statues over the summer in demonstrations against racial inequity. A protester in Portsmouth was critically injured when a falling Confederate statue struck him on the head.

During the regular legislative session that ended in March, Democrats, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, established a legal mechanism for removing statues. It took effect July 1, but the measure’s lengthy review process failed to satisfy Virginia demonstrators’ urgent calls for action on Confederate memorials after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney invoked a state of emergency to remove 11 Confederate monuments on city property on the day the law went into effect. The city council later held a public hearing and voted to make the removals permanent.

An anonymous local resident filed suit against Stoney’s action, but the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that the plaintiff lacked legal standing in the case.

The change to the law would allow localities to adopt a lengthier review process but would not require it.

Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) objected last week during a committee hearing on the bill, saying he wanted to “make sure the public has input” into such decisions.

McQuinn said the public would have input through elected officials and noted that local governments would be free to set up any process they saw fit.

“We’re giving the authority back to the localities without a lot of strings attached,” McQuinn said during the hearing.

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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;

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