This story was published between issues of the newspaper. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes.
Originally published September 15, 2020 to the Virginia Defender Facebook page.
By Phil Wilayto
RICHMOND, VA, Sept. 15 — For the first time since 1993, the Democratic Party controls both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion, but that still hasn’t resulted in the critical police-abuse reforms demanded by thousands of Richmond anti-racist protesters.
The current special session of the Virginia General Assembly was originally called to deal with the state’s COVID-19-related budget crisis, but, thanks to more than 100 days of protests following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, most of the session so far has been spent dealing with bills addressing police-related issues.
To find out the status of those bills, The Defender spoke with Princess Blanding, co-founder of the advocacy group Justice & Reformation and spokesperson for the family of Marcus-David Peters, the Virginia Commonwealth University graduate and high school biology teacher fatally shot May 14, 2018, by a Richmond police officer while experiencing a mental health crisis. Blanding has been promoting the seven demands that her family and others have been raising during the Rebellion. She has been assisted in this effort by, among others, Defender Joseph Rogers and Nick Da Silva, a member of the Richmond chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Note: Bills addressing similar issues are introduced in both the House of Delegates and Senate. If passed, any differences between the bills are worked out in joint committees. If a final bill is agreed to by both houses, the bill then goes to the governor, who can sign or veto it.
The Marcus Alert
Would mandate that the first people to respond to someone experiencing a mental health crisis would be mental health professionals and peer recovery specialists, with police present only as back-up, prepared to use only non-lethal force.
HB-5043 – Delegate Jeffrey Bourne, D-71st District
SB 5038 – Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Woodbridge
Princess Blanding: As far as the Marcus Alert is concerned, will we get it? The bill by Delegate Bourne is the closest, but the big hiccup with his is that it’s a phase-in, starting with five localities, including Richmond, with the rest phased in through 2026.
In the Senate, the McPike bill is dangerous, a harmful bill. It would ultimately allow localities to do just what they are already doing. Each one would have their own Memorandum of Understanding. There’s no language on how police are to be involved, or not involved. There’s some very subjective language, like “if feasible,” etc. He and I have gone back and forth on this many times. He admitted that there was a need for a system like the Marcus Alert system and said we don’t have adequate mental health programs in Virginia. My interpretation is that he wants to continue to give the police the ability to do what they do.
Community Review Boards
– With subpoena powers and elected members.
HB-5055 – Charniele Herring, D-46th District
SB-5035 – Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-10th District
PB: What we have [with the Hashmi bill] is a weak, dangerous bill. It’s an enabling bill, it’s not mandatory, and it doesn’t say that board members are to be elected. So it basically states that localities can do it if they want. The boards could include police officers, commonwealth’s attorneys, etc. We’ve gone back and forth with Sen. Hashmi. Her stance is that this is what the Democratic caucus is comfortable with. So again, if you want to be technical, we will have a bill, but it will be weak and not what the people need to ensure that community care and safety is put first and always.
Defunding the police and funding social services
PB: From the local to the state level, Democratic legislators have no desire to defund the police.
Ending “Qualified Immunity”
[This] would let individuals sue law enforcement officers for violating their rights and eliminate “qualified immunity” as a legal defense.
HB 5013 – Delegate Jeffrey Bourne, D-71st District
The Senate version of the bill was killed in committee.
PB: Though it wasn’t one of our demands, we support ending qualified immunity for police officers. The House bill died twice, first in committee and then on the House floor, but we were able to get it brought back.
Other demands, not addressed in the General Assembly:
Reopening the Marcus-David-Peters case
PB: We’re still waiting on [Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette] McEachin. It’s been over two months since she said she would review the case and, if she disagreed with [former Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael] Herring’s verdict, then she would reopen it.
Dropping all charges against all anti-racist protesters
PB: McEachin has made it very clear that she’s not going to do that, that she will review each case on an individual basis.
Release the names of police officers accused of using excessive force.
PB: McEachin still has yet to do that.
Taking down all Richmond Confederate Monuments
PB: Most are now down. On the Lee monument, there’s an injunction that has slowed taking it down.
PB: Looking at our demands and the uprising, this is my take: Some of the demands will be met, through avenues such as the special session, but it’s time to pump up our efforts. Our clear message to the Democratic Party should be, if you refuse to deliver, then we will raise a very strong independent party to go against you. And that’s how we will get the demands met, by shifting the power in key political positions to the people via a strong independent party.