By Sarah Elson
A Senate committee recently killed a bill intended to minimize police misconduct and incentivize accountability among law enforcement.
House Bill 1948, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, required law enforcement officers to report misconduct by fellow officers. Another part of the measure, which some opponents called too subjective, was that on-duty officers provide aid as circumstances objectively permitted to someone suffering a life-threatening condition, or serious bodily injury.
The bill also expanded the current definition of bias-based profiling, which is prohibited in Virginia, to include gender identity and sexual orientation. Bias-based profiling is when a police officer takes action solely based on an individual’s real or perceived race, age, ethnicity or gender.
The measure passed the Virginia House of Delegates last month on a 57-42 vote and the Senate Judiciary committee killed the bill this week on a 9-6 vote. Levine introduced a similar bill last year that also failed in the Senate.
“I call HB 1948 my good apple bill because it separates the vast majority of law enforcement that are good apples from the few bad apples that are not,” Levine said when the bill was before the House.
Dominique Martin, a policy analyst for New Virginia Majority, said before a House panel that the bill would establish a mechanism to create accountability among officers.
“One of the major themes when discussing long lasting approaches to police reform is the need for change at the institutional level,” Martin said. “One aspect is addressing organizational culture. It incentivizes a more accountable culture amongst law enforcement.”
Vee Lamneck, executive director for Equality Virginia, spoke in favor of the bill.
“LGBT people, especially Black, Latinx, Indigenous LGBT people, are more likely to be victimized by discriminatory police practices,” Lamneck said. “Transgender women are six times more likely to endure police violence and Black transgender women experience even higher rates of being antagonized and criminalized by police.”
HB 1250, also known as The Community Policing Act, took effect on July 1, 2020. The law prohibits police from engaging in bias-based profiling while on duty.
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, expressed concern with the part of Levine’s bill that required officers to provide aid to someone with a life threatening injury.
“The concern is that a lot of times in situations where you don’t know whether life-saving aid is necessarily required in that instance, the outcome may be that someone is injured more than is immediately recognizable,” Schrad said.
Schrad said the bill was a response to events such as the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in police custody. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second degree murder and will stand trial in March. The three other officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, will stand trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
“It’s the George Floyd response that the officers there did not render aid,” Schrad said.
John Clair, police chief for the Marion Police Department, in Smyth County, agreed with Schrad.
“We’re police officers, medical aid should be left to medical professionals,” Clair said.
The requirement to render aid is not in the state code and though it is a requirement already for many districts, there is a need for consistency across the commonwealth, Levine said.
“I’m confident that the vast majority would do so anyway,” Levine said. “This makes it a matter of policy; it will be taught in training.”
Several bills centered on police reform have died during this General Assembly session. A measure by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, would have established data collection on use of force incidents that would be reported to the superintendent of Virginia State Police. HB 2045 and SB 1440 would have eliminated qualified immunity. The bills would have made it easier for plaintiffs to sue police officers in civil court for depriving the plaintiffs of their constitutional rights. Both bills were struck down within the last two weeks. A similar measure from Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, who patroned HB 2045, was also struck down during the 2020 General Assembly special session.
Schrad said Levine’s bill and the qualified immunity bill would have taken away legal protections and created a strict liability for police officers. Opponents of the qualified immunity bills also said there would be a negative impact on hiring new police recruits.
“These kinds of issues all taken together create such a standard of both strict liability, and no protections for law enforcement officers that we’re really throwing them under the bus,” Schrad said.
Levine said his bill was both modest and large.
“It’s large because it really tries to make it clear there is no thin blue line, that the goal of law enforcement is to serve the public first and you should not be covering up bad acts, severe acts of wrongdoing, that’s not technical or minimal, by your fellow officer,” he said.
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