Opinion: Commentary: Building Trust in our Police Officers

Opinion: Commentary: Building Trust in our Police Officers

This column, number two of three columns, focuses on reforms to Virginia’s policing practices, legislation I helped craft with Senator Mamie Locke. Last week, I reported on the criminal justice reforms that the Virginia General Assembly approved in our recent special session. Next week, I will discuss changes in Virginia’s budget.

The video capturing the chokehold and murder of George Floyd shocked America and was a painful example of abusive policing experienced by the African American community for too long. These images galvanized a grassroots movement that demanded changes. The General Assembly tried to respond with needed changes in our laws.

Diverse Input Sought

During the drafting process, I sought diverse views in at least a dozen meetings with state and local law enforcement leaders. We held meetings with local officers on the street, community advocates, and heard testimony from national experts and state law enforcement leaders in a public hearing.

Despite some media reports, Virginia’s law enforcement agencies supported most of these measures because most larger departments already train to these standards. Sixty of Virginia’s 430 law enforcement agencies are accredited by state and national organizations that confirm they hold their officers to high standards and follow best practices. No department trains officers to use chokeholds or shoot at moving cars, and accredited departments already utilize a use-of-force continuum and train to use deadly force only as a last resort.

Improvements in Policing Practices

Under Virginia’s current laws, if an officer commits misconduct, resigns mid-investigation and is terminated, there is no requirement to share that officer’s employment records. This is how officers who use faulty judgment remain employed, by “hopping” or moving to another department.

Our bill requires police or deputies switching jobs to sign employment file releases, requires record-sharing and eliminates the law forcing termination of a decertification proceeding upon an officer’s resignation. It encourages departments to require psychological screening for new hires.

The bill requires training in racial bias, mental health awareness, substance abuse disorders and cognitive disabilities and creates a statewide mandatory baseline training. The bill prohibits law enforcement agencies from acquiring military equipment like mine-resistant personnel carriers, 50-caliber rifles and weaponized drones.

Today, officers can only be decertified for conviction of crimes or positive drug tests. Our legislation creates an officer code of conduct and use of force standards that can be grounds for decertification. We also allow decertification for lying in court and withholding “Brady materials,” evidence tending to show a person is innocent.

Our legislation criminalizes sex between officers and people in custody. It prohibits chokeholds or shooting at moving motor vehicles except in self-defense, prohibiting what occurred in the shooting of Bijan Ghaisar in the Mount Vernon area.

We require warning before deadly force is used if feasible, and created statutory standards for the use of deadly force. The bill creates an affirmative duty for officers to intervene when they see another officer using excessive force.

Virginia will become the third state to ban “no knock” warrants. A national ban proposed by Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul is pending in Congress. We also prohibited officers from serving search warrants after dark unless specific authorization is requested, justified and approved by a Circuit Court judge.

Earlier in 2020, we passed legislation requiring annual reports on the race of citizens and outcome of traffic stops. We recently built upon that law by also requiring annual reporting by all Virginia’s law enforcement agencies on use of force and expanded reporting to pedestrian encounters where a search or arrest occurs.

Making Records Available

Commonwealth’s attorneys were frustrated by localities’ refusal to provide records in cases of police shootings. For example, Fairfax County’s delay in providing records in the John Geer case stalled prosecution for two years. Our legislation requires localities to turn over records to prosecutors for all criminal cases involving a police officer if the officer is being investigated or is a witness in a case.

We hope these reforms will make our law enforcement stronger by further professionalizing law enforcement agencies, building community trust through expanding transparency and ensuring that “bad apples” cannot jump departments.

It is an honor to serve as your state senator. Please email me at scott@scottsurovell.org with your suggestions.