The Virginia House of Delegates approved a sweeping package of police reform bills Friday that Democrats said would make it easier to rein in officers who abuse their authority but Republicans said would hamstring police and make their jobs more dangerous.
The legislation includes many of the measures protesters around the country have called for since the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, including prohibiting the use of chokeholds and no-knock search warrants, requiring police officers to intervene to stop the use of excessive force by another officer and expanding the grounds to decertify officers who commit misconduct.
Democrats hailed the legislation as long-overdue measures to hold police accountable for their actions, while Republicans said the bills will only make it more difficult for police to protect law-abiding citizens.
“Officers should be able to use neck restraint if they're in a fight for their lives. Banning every use of a no-knock warrant will end in more dead police and more dead suspects,” said House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert.
The House narrowly rejected a bill aimed at making it easier to sue police officers for misconduct. The legislation sponsored by Del. Jeff Bourne would have allowed lawsuits by people who claim police have violated their constitutional rights to move forward in state court, ending the qualified immunity that often protects police from liability.
“Really, it boils down to, are we going to afford Virginians who find themselves on the business end of excessive force the ability to better and more fairly fight for some redress in our state courts?” Bourne said.
Republicans argued that the legislation would it more difficult to recruit police officers because it would expose them to civil liability for doing their jobs. A similar bill failed in the Senate.
Among the legislation approved by the House are bills that would:
- Ban sexual relations between officers and people they arrest.
- Mandate the duty of a police officer to report the misconduct of another officer.
- Expand the definition of hate crimes to include false 911 calls or reports to police against another person on the basis of race, religious conviction, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, color or national origin.
- Strengthen the review of prior law enforcement employment records before hiring officers.
The special legislative session, which began last month, was called by Gov. Ralph Northam to address the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and to consider proposed police and criminal justice reforms in the aftermath of Floyd's killing.