FILE - Virginia police

Police in riot gear prepare to disperse a group of protesters as they march through downtown Richmond, Va., for a third night of unrest Sunday May 31, 2020. Content Exchange

(The Center Square) – Legislation that would give more power to civilian review boards of police passed the Virginia Senate on Tuesday with overwhelming support from Democrats and opposition from Republicans.

Senate Bill 5035 would allow local governments to establish civilian review boards that could have subpoena power and the authority to make binding disciplinary decisions if there is a serious breach of department and professional standards. Boards also could be given the power to investigate policies, practices and procedures of police departments and make recommendations on them.

Local governments would decide whether to adopt a board and what authority to grant it.

Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, who sponsored the bill, said on the Senate floor that many people feel a deep anxiety about police departments, which can be observed through recent events such as marches and protests. She said her bill would help strengthen the relationship between police departments and the community and instill more trust in police.

Lawmakers went back and forth on the Senate floor, with Republicans cautioning the bill would make it difficult for police to do their job. Democrats argued it will allow localities to best decide how to manage their departments.

“We’ve dismantled our police departments,” Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, said in reference to SB 5035 and other policing reform bills passed by the body in the past few weeks.

Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said the General Assembly never should pass legislation during a moment of panic. Although the legislation does not require localities to establish civilian review boards, he said the people protesting the police, throwing bricks, setting fires and attacking officers, will pressure localities into establishing the boars and they will practically be left without a choice.

Norment said the legislation could give unprecedented powers to people on a board who do not believe police ever can use tear gas or rubber bullets to contain a riot or use a baton to protect themselves.

Speaking in defense of the legislation, Sen. David Marsden, D-Burke, said local governments will have the ability to thoughtfully sit down and make decisions about whether to establish a board and what authority to give it. Some models will have flaws, which will be fixed, and one day there will be a model policy for everyone and decisions no longer will be made behind closed doors, he said.

Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Springfield, said he was voting for the bill and he would not support it if he thought it would prevent police from properly doing their jobs.

The bill passed the Senate by a 20-15 vote. The House has passed more aggressive review board legislation. House Bill 5055 would require every locality to establish a civilian review board but would give localities some discretion on what authority they would have.

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