Opinion: Commentary: Virginia State Legislature Will Vote on Policing Reforms

The events of the last 60 days have been troubling for America and our community. Our strategies in Virginia have pushed the state’s coronavirus reproduction rate to the fourth-lowest in the United States. At the same time, the advocacy spawned by George Floyd’s killing has heightened awareness in the U.S. and across the globe of long-standing injustices in our criminal justice system. This was unfortunately underscored when Fairfax County police appeared to have unjustifiably tased a man in obvious mental distress in our community, in Gum Springs, earlier this month.

As part of my law practice, I have been defending people and their civil rights for 24 years. Over this time, we have seen the rights of the accused steadily chipped away as the legislature and the courts made changes to produce more convictions, longer sentences and incentivize more pleas, steps that make it less likely that the legal system will actually ascertain the truth. I have seen many people plead guilty to crimes to which they have an actual defense because the consequences of a possible conviction are too severe.

Fairfax and Prince William Counties have made some progress on these issues. Many police vehicles have dash cameras. Universal body cameras for officers are coming. Fairfax County implemented a citizen advisory board. The Prince William Police Department does regular community outreach. Fairfax County has improved its practices in officer-involved shootings and use-of-force incidents. However, we must do better locally and in our state.

I am chairing the state Senate Democratic Caucus’s ad hoc Subcommittee on Police Reform and Criminal Justice. Last week, we announced six groups of initiatives that a majority of the state senators support. We intend to pass them in a special session this summer.

First, we must reform how we police our community. There is no justification for chokeholds. Departments must utilize a use-of-force continuum that emphasizes non-violent approaches, then lesser forms of force and the use of firearms as a last resort. Shooting into moving cars -- such as Bijan Ghaisar’s here in Fairfax County – must be illegal. We need an officer decertification system and a prohibition on hiring officers who were fired or resigned due to misconduct investigations. No-knock warrants, as used by police who killed Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, are unnecessary and should be illegal.

In 1997, our legislature made assault on a law enforcement officer a felony. This means that touching a police officer without the officer’s consent can result in felony charges. I have seen people charged with this for slapping an officer’s wrist as the officer hands over a speeding ticket or bumping into an officer and walking away from a vehicle. Officers often use this charge when an officer’s misconduct could be alleged. We need to return this to a misdemeanor offense as it was for 200 years. Serious injuries can always be charged as felonies.

We need to expand local governments’ authority for civilian review boards and create response systems to get mental health professionals on the scene with the police to de-escalate situations. We cannot expect our law enforcement officers to be experts in everything.

We must empower our prosecutors to drop charges when they feel it is appropriate and Virginia’s punitive expungement laws need to allow more types of dismissed charges or minor convictions to be removed from people’s records.

We hope to pass legislation to discourage racial profiling by eliminating the authority for police to stop vehicles for tinted windows, loud exhaust or defective license plate lightbulbs. We also hope to abolish the jury’s role in sentencing, something already done in 46 other states and the federal system. We must re-examine our prison systems and allow inmates to earn time off their sentences for good behavior and allow the Parole Board to consider releasing inmates who are permanently disabled or terminally ill. This could save taxpayers up to $29 million per year.

These reforms are just the beginning but are what we hope to accomplish in our special session. We will hold a series of public hearings to receive input from stakeholders, experts and all Virginians and invite you to participate.

Please feel free to share your views by emailing me at scott@scottsurovell.org.