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Va. Senate Approves Bill Banning Chokeholds, No-Knock Warrants

A seated woman talking to a standing man and woman
Senator Mamie Locke (D - Hampton) introduced a set of police reform bills that passed the state Senate. (Pool photo: Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

The Senate of Virginia passed a significant police reform bill last week that includes a ban on chokeholds and no-knock warrants. It requires all officers to be trained in de-escalation and to intervene when another officer is using excessive force among other provisions.  

Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) called the bill, which was introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton), historic.

“This bill she’s carrying is going to really revolutionize the hiring and firing of law enforcement in Virginia and will leave us with a much stronger force in place with fewer bad apples running around causing problems,” Surovell said.

The legislation outlines statewide professional standards of conduct for police officers, which makes it easier to not only fire but decertify officers who violate those standards.  

Surovell said writing these standards into state code will address the issue of qualified immunity -- an existing rule that says law enforcement can’t be sued for their actions.

“As soon as you put in the code you cannot use a chokehold, you cannot shoot in a moving motor vehicle, you have a duty to intervene, you have a duty to render aid, once you have those standards in the code, you no longer have qualified immunity in those situations,” he said.

Woman in mask
Sen. Mamie Locke (D - Hampton) wears a mask borrowing a phrase from the late civil rights leader John Lewis. (Pool photo: Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Qualified immunity shields public employees who are doing their jobs from civil suits unless they violated clearly-outlined laws or constitutional rights.

Police officers would lose their license for violating the state standards if this bill is signed into law. That’s a problem for many advocates who want to see police get harsher punishments for excessive force, for instance.

Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said this proposal will increase accountability. But it’s not as strong as she would like.

“The fact that there isn’t any kind of criminal sanction for engaging in behavior that is unlawful and hurt somebody is problematic,” Gastañaga said.

Senate Democrats are taking a vastly different approach to police accountability and qualified immunity than others in the party.  In the House of Delegates, Democrats have  a bill that makes it a felony for an officer to not intervene when a colleague is engaging in unlawful force. Another House bill would make it a felony for an officer to use a chokehold. Both of those have cleared the House and are scheduled to be heard in a Senate committee.

Surovell said those measures are excessive.

“The only profession that I’m aware of that results in a felony because the job you elected to take is being someone who delivers the mail. I think creating a series of crimes for the status of your job, I feel like that’s overkill,” he said.

A Senate committee killed a House bill last week that would have eliminated qualified immunity entirely. Locke’s reform bill now heads to the House of Delegates for a vote.