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Black Lawmakers Call for More Oversight of Police

Protestors holding signs march through downtown Richmond
Protestors march in Richmond on Sunday (Roberto Roldan/VPM News)

Black lawmakers in Virginia’s General Assembly are calling for strengthened oversight of police in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.

They say Floyd’s death struck a nerve, but may have also created an opening for overdue changes. That includes instituting civilian review boards — panels with ordinary people who can look into reports of misconduct.

Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), chair of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said he was confident the caucus would get a better reception than they had in the past, with Republicans and some Democrats traditionally voting down larger-scale changes to the criminal justice system.

“This is not one of those things that I hope shall just pass away,” Bagby said in an interview with VPM. “I hope we come out of this stronger.”

Some activists say Democrats missed an opportunity to pass farther-reaching criminal justice bills this legislative session, like reinstating parole, legalizing marijuana, and outlawing the death penalty.

But Bagby said criminal justice bills often require a level of scrutiny that can’t be packed into a single session. He said a top priority for the caucus was overhauling the State Crime Commission, which he would like to rename the Justice Commission, to review major criminal justice bills throughout the year with an eye towards reform.

The commission hasn’t been active since November, when, under Republican leadership, it issued an inconclusive report on the causes of the mass shooting in Virginia Beach last year.

Del. Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) is still trying to understand why Minneapolis police were so aggressive with Floyd. She choked up recounting the incident.

“This person is there begging for breath,” McQuinn said. “This person is calling for their mother.”

McQuinn said she believed departments needed a program of standardized mental health evaluations for officers. And she said that criminal justice reform was just part of the answer to solving the country’s unrest, which hinged on centuries of discrimination against African Americans.

“If we don’t get to the very essence of what’s causing these problems or challenges that we’re dealing with right now, we will continue to deal with it,” McQuinn.

Both lawmakers condemned the looting and destruction of property that accompanied the Richmond protests over the weekend. And McQuinn largely defended the work of the Richmond Police Department.

“It was just a difficult situation,” McQuinn. “I’m not sure we were totally prepared for it.”

Sen. Jenniffer McClellan (D-Richmond) said in a statement that she was "overcome by the sheer, utter exhaustion of being Black in America."

"We must commit to criminal justice reforms that center training in bias, crisis de-escalation and intervention practices for law enforcement and the criminal justice system," McClellan said. "We must create and enforce methods of review and transparency in investigations of misconduct at all levels."

The General Assembly passed a bill this year that would create a comprehensive database of police traffic stops broken out by race, ethnicity and gender of drivers. Richmond activist and social worker Chelsea Higgs Wise urged lawmakers to consider collecting that information on other police interactions, including informal "field interviews" conducted by officers.

Higgs Wise said she has been pressuring Richmond to adopt civilian review boards for two years, after Marcus David-Peters was shot by a police officer in 2018. She said some attempts at oversight gave too much power to law enforcement rather than the community members at the center of policing.

“Why are politicians still only talking to politicians?” Higgs Wise said.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect Higgs Wise's activism, which has focused on Richmond City rather than the General Assembly.