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Advocates of police reform frustrated by Democratic leadership during General Assembly session

Virginia has made headlines in recent months for criminal justice reform measures but advocates say more needs to be done. They are disappointed lawmakers in both chambers of the General Assembly recently killed proposals to reduce qualified immunity protections for police officers. 

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By Josephine Walker

Virginia has made headlines in recent months for criminal justice reform measures but advocates say more needs to be done. They are disappointed lawmakers in both chambers of the General Assembly recently killed proposals to reduce qualified immunity protections for police officers.

State lawmakers so far this session have advanced bills to legalize marijuana, remove mandatory minimum sentences and abolish the death penalty. During the special session called last year, the General Assembly banned police from using no-knock search warrants and chokeholds.

 Qualified immunity shields government officials from civil liability while performing duties in their line of work as long as their actions don’t violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known,” according to a Congressional Research Service report.

House Bill 2045, introduced by Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, would have given citizens the power to pursue damages in state civil lawsuits where their rights were violated by a law enforcement officer. The bill also placed a cap on an individual officer’s liability. Bourne’s proposal was tabled 6-2 in the House Courts of Justice subcommittee.

Senate Bill 1440, sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, was a narrower proposal that provided a path for lawsuits when an officer used excessive or deadly force and neck restraints. The bill died in the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 9-5 vote.

Qualified immunity is a federal doctrine established by the Supreme Court in 1982. A state legislature can’t repeal qualified immunity, but proponents of ending the practice have asked local and state governments to create legislation allowing citizens more freedom in pursuing lawsuits against police misconduct.

During a subcommittee hearing, Bourne questioned opponents of his bill who he said consider themselves to be proponents of constitutional rights and law and order.

“It seems when we’re talking about this, and when we’re talking about people getting hurt and their constitutional rights deprived by law enforcement officers,” Bourne said. “The story becomes different.”

Princess Blanding is a gubernatorial candidate who has advocated for criminal justice reform since the death of her brother, Marcus-David Peters. Peters was naked and unarmed when he was shot by a police officer on the side of a highway. Peters charged at the police officer who deployed his Taser and then shot Peters at least twice. Peters was experiencing a mental health crisis, according to his family.

Blanding said eliminating qualified immunity is a necessary step to end discrimination and achieve racial justice in the commonwealth.

“It’s like no matter what we do to prep our kids, our loved ones, it is still going to be our fate because of the pigmentation of our skin, coupled with the fact that there is no accountability,” Blanding said. “To me, that’s the harsh reality.”

Kalia Harris, co-host of the show Race Capitol and co-executive director of the Virginia Student Power Network, or VSPN, said she was “extremely disappointed” when a judge dismissed her organization’s lawsuit against local government and local and state police. VSPN said city leaders and law enforcement violated the group’s right to free speech, assembly and protest. Last June, VSPN students hosted an overnight teach-in outside Richmond City Hall. After several hours, the Richmond Police Department declared the event an unlawful assembly and discharged teargas and rubber bullets at the protesters.

“That night is still on replay in my head,” Harris said during the House subcommittee meeting. “Words can’t explain the trauma that we experienced.”

Blanding said it’s difficult for victims of police brutality to get lawyers to take on a qualified immunity case due to the power of police unions and the relationship of prosecutors to officers.

Blanding also said if the number of positive interactions the public has with officers outweighs the instances of police misconduct, the few suits alleging misconduct should not have an issue proceeding to court. It is important to recognize that police misconduct causes irrefutable damage and changes families lives’ forever, Blanding said.

“What we have to understand is that, when you take somebody’s life, you can’t take out the magic eraser, and erase it and try it again,” Blanding said. “You cannot press restart.”

Harris said the ability to sue law enforcement agents for misconduct was the “bare minimum” of a judicial system that works for everyone.

“It doesn’t mean that they’re going to all be convicted,” she said. “It does mean that folks are able to see their day in court.”

Police officers do not qualify for qualified immunity if they can not demonstrate the actions that they took were reasonable, said Wayne Huggins, the executive director of the Virginia State Police Association. He said officers must prove they upheld the U.S. Constitution, the laws of the commonwealth and the policies of their individual department.

“The word that needs to be focused upon and understood is qualified,” Huggins said. “We have to qualify for that immunity.”

Officers can be denied qualified immunity if the Supreme Court or local federal appeals court finds another officer’s conduct under the same circumstances is illegal or unconstitutional, according to the Institute for Justice. The officer automatically qualifies for immunity if a case with the same circumstances does not exist.

Martin, Harris and Blanding said they hope to see legislation reducing qualified immunity protections introduced again. This is the second time that Bourne’s qualified immunity measure failed.

Harris said the “Democratic trifecta” means very little to her if Democrats don’t use their majority to pass progressive legislation that voters support. All 100 of Virginia’s House of Delegate seats are up for reelection in 2021. Harris said legislators unwilling to pass comprehensive police reform will face progressive challengers this June.

“If they’re not passing meaningful legislation, then we have to really push what it means to be blue, and start to think further outside of the box,” Harris said.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Downtown

City Council unanimously approves sale of the Public Safety Building

The city is selling the three-acre property to Capital City Partners, LLC for $3,520,456 who will then redevelop the site into a $325 million mixed-use project anchored by VCU Health System, The Doorways, and Ronald McDonald House Charities.

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Richmond City Council approved three Ordinances introduced by the Stoney Administration for the sale and redevelopment of the site of the of the existing Public Safety Building. The city is selling the three-acre property to Capital City Partners, LLC for $3,520,456 who will then redevelop the site into a $325 million mixed-use project anchored by VCU Health System, The Doorways, and Ronald McDonald House Charities.

The negotiated sales price takes into account the developer’s responsibility to demolish the existing building and build public infrastructure that includes reconstructing Clay Street between 9th and 10th Streets.

“The sale and redevelopment of the Public Safety Building site is a critical first step to improving downtown,” said Mayor Levar Stoney.  “My Administration was glad to work with City Council and Capital City Partners, LLC to create this great win for Richmond.

The project will aid minority businesses, create child care slots for Richmond families, fund scholarships for graduates of Richmond Public Schools, and generate nearly $56 million in new revenue for the city’s General Fund over the first 25 years. We can, and we will, continue to grow Richmond by redeveloping underutilized city-owned property.”

“For many years the city has needed to find a better use for the Public Safety Building site.  I am glad that City Council has approved this important project that moves the city forward in redeveloping our Downtown, benefits our community, and strengthens healthcare in the city and region,” said Councilmember Ellen Robertson.

“We want to thank Mayor Stoney and Richmond City Council for supporting the sale of this property and allowing this important development to go forward.  Too often real estate transactions are thought of only in terms of investment and economics, but not in the lives they improve.  This project will help improve the lives of thousands of families in crises and will further Richmond’s reputation as an important healthcare capital,” said Capital City Partners’ Susan Eastridge and Michael Hallmark.

“VCU and VCU Health are strongly committed to the redevelopment of this area.  The Public Safety Building Project, along with the current construction of our new children’s inpatient hospital and Adult Outpatient Pavilion, will play a critical role in supporting a thriving urban center,” said Michael Rao, president of VCU and VCU Health System.

“We are pleased that the City has chosen to move forward with the sale of the Public Safety Building to Capital City Partners, LLC.  This announcement marks the beginning of a long-awaited initiative to breathe fresh life into this section of the city, while providing a much needed new home for The Doorways to lodge the thousands of families who depend on our services to access their medical care.  This announcement is truly a win-win for the Doorways and the entire Richmond community,” said Stacy Brinkley, President and CEO of The Doorways.

“As specialty pediatric care grows in the Richmond region, so does the need to support the whole family.  A new, fully-accessible Ronald McDonald House provides more capacity to help families whose sick and injured children are receiving care at all pediatric hospitals throughout the Richmond region as well as families whose children are the most vulnerable and medically complex being cared for at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU.  This project is a game changer for pediatric healthcare,” said Kerry Blumberg, executive director of Ronald McDonald House Charities of Richmond.

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Jefferson Davis Highway in the process of being renamed following House vote

The bill, introduced by Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, passed the House earlier this month with a 70-28 vote. The Senate passed the measure earlier this week with a 30-9 vote.

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By Cameron Jones

The Virginia General Assembly has approved a bill renaming sections of U.S. Route 1 almost 100 years after it was named in honor of the first and only president of the Confederacy.

The bill, introduced by Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, passed the House earlier this month with a 70-28 vote. The Senate passed the measure earlier this week with a 30-9 vote.

Counties and cities have until Jan. 1, 2022 to change their portion of Jefferson Davis Highway to whatever name they choose, or the state will change it to Emancipation Memorial Highway.

“Change the name on your own, or the General Assembly will change it for you,” Cole said to House committee members.

Sections of the highway that run through Stafford, Caroline, Spotsylvania and Chesterfield counties will need new signage and markers, according to the bill’s impact statement. Commemorative naming signs will be replaced, along with overhead guide signs at interchanges and street-name signs. The changes are estimated to cost almost $600,000 for all localities. The changes in Chesterfield will cost an estimated $373,000 because there are 17 Jefferson Davis Highway overhead signs on Routes 288 and 150.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy conceived the plan for Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in 1913, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Davis was a Mississippi senator who became the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Virginia General Assembly designated U.S. Route 1 as Jefferson Davis Highway in 1922.

“Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy, a constant reminder of a white nationalist experiment, and a racist Democrat,” Cole said. “Instead we can acknowledge the powerful act of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Cole said the change acknowledges the positive history of the Civil War and reminds people of the emancipation and freedom that came from it.

The bill received little pushback in House and Senate committees. A Richmond City representative said their initial concern was the interpretation if districts would have the opportunity to choose a replacement name. Signs are already going up renaming the route to Richmond Highway in Richmond.

Sen. Scott A. Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, voiced his support for the bill. He responded to concern that the change dishonors a veteran. He said he believes the bill “strikes a reasonable balance” by giving counties time to rename their portion of the highway, or they will give it a default name which “doesn’t carry the political baggage.”

A poll by Hampton University and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found Virginians are still divided on changing the names of schools, streets and military bases named after Confederate leaders (44% supported the idea and 43% opposed it).

Eric Sundberg, Cole’s chief of staff, said there were two camps of people that opposed the bill. He said some were openly racist and called Cole’s office to make offensive remarks. Then there were people who said they did not want to “double dip” on renaming the portion in their respective district and wanted it all to be named Richmond Highway.

Stephen Farnsworth, professor and director at the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said efforts to rename the highway have never received much support in Richmond until this year.

“Virginia has rapidly moved from a commonwealth that treasured its Confederate legacy, to one that is trying to move beyond it,” Farnsworth said.

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Delegate celebrates Senate passage of limited paid leave bill

The Virginia Senate passed an amended version of a bill by Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Woodbridge, mandating paid sick leave. The substitute bill, which now only extends to some in-home health care workers, heads back to the House where the initial bill passed on a 54-46 vote. Guzmán said she will encourage delegates to approve the substitute and send the amended bill to Gov. Ralph Northam.

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By Zachary Klosko

After four years and multiple bills, Del. Elizabeth Guzmán, D-Woodbridge, is on the cusp of being able to secure paid leave for some Virginia workers.

“It feels really good,” Guzmán said. “I think about the amount of people who are going to get this benefit and how they will have peace of mind to stay home and take care of family members if they are unwell.”

The Virginia Senate passed an amended version of the delegate’s legislation that mandates paid sick leave for some in-home health care workers. The substitute bill heads back to the House, where the initial bill passed on a 54-46 vote. Guzmán said she will encourage delegates to approve the substitute and send the amended bill to Gov. Ralph Northam.

Guzmán took to Twitter after the Senate’s 21-18 vote to express her excitement.

“Thank you!!” Guzmán wrote on Twitter. “We did it!!”

House Bill 2137 originally offered the benefit to many essential workers, including first responders, retail workers, cleaning workers, teachers, jail and prison employees and transportation workers.

 The bill advanced from the House with an amendment for small businesses; it did not apply to retail businesses with fewer than 25 employees. The Senate later amended the bill to only offer the benefit to in-home health care workers who serve patients with Medicaid coverage.

The substitute still requires employers to set aside one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours worked. Employees must work at least an average of 20 hours per week or 90 hours per month to qualify. Once covered, workers will be allowed paid leave if they are sick or if they need to care for a sick family member. Unused sick leave can be carried over to the year after it was earned.

The amended bill will protect 25,000 workers, according to a press release by Guzmán.

Guzmán says her work is not done.

“I will continue to fight as lieutenant governor, I will continue to fight as a delegate,” Guzmán said. “Whichever role I’m in, I will continue to fight.”

Guzmán is running for lieutenant governor. Among others in the race, she is facing Del. Hala Ayala, another Democrat from Prince William County. If successful, Ayala or Guzmán would become the first Latina to serve in the role.

If signed into law, those covered will begin to accrue paid leave hours on July 1.

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