I've received more than 100 emails over the last couple of weeks on the need to address the twin scourges of systemic racism and police brutality. I wrote back at some length to everyone who wrote me on what we've seen, what we've done, and what we intend (with your help) to do to substantially reform the nature of policing and criminal justice in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
I decided to share the substance of that letter with the rest of you.
What Have We Witnessed?
We all saw the brutal execution of George Floyd, where a police officer refused to remove his knee from Mr. Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Mr. Floyd was unarmed, handcuffed, and not resisting in any way. Bystanders begged that officer and three others to stop this cold-blooded murder. But instead, the police held Mr. Floyd down as his cries of “I can’t breathe” softened to whimpers and then silence. Even after that, the police officer refused to remove his knee from Mr. Floyd’s neck, and no other officer acted to stop him. That those Minneapolis officers acted in broad daylight while being recorded suggests to me they had few qualms about what they were doing and little concern as to how the criminal justice system or the community would react to it. This has to change.
Two months ago in Louisville, Breonna Taylor was shot eight times by plain-clothes police officers, breaking into her house in the middle of the night to execute a “no-knock” warrant for drug dealing. No drugs were found, but her boyfriend appears to have responded to what he thought was a break-in, and Breonna ended up dead. None of the officers who shot Breonna have, to my knowledge, yet faced any repercussion whatsoever.
Ahmaud Arbery was murdered for jogging in his neighborhood in rural Georgia by a couple of white men, including one who was both an ex-police officer and an ex-investigator for the county prosecutor. The killer, it is alleged, after he hunted down Mr. Aubery and shot him dead, stood over Mr. Aubery shouting a racial slur. For months, local police and a series of prosecutors declined to press charges, finding the killing to be justified. Only when someone connected to the killers themselves publicly released a video of the incident did a (fourth) prosecutor finally press charges against the murderers.
These black lives didn't matter to police:
Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd
Furthermore, just this week, we’ve seen too many police forces across the country respond militarily to mass protests, as if Americans exercising their First Amendment rights were terrorists. Those of us peacefully demanding an end to police cruelty should never be met with police violence.
These, of course, are just a few very recent examples of the systemic racism and police brutality that have been going on hand in hand for centuries in America. Fewer earlier examples were video-recorded, but they’ve been widespread throughout our history. Savage racist violence is our nation’s original sin. In the nineteenth century, Alexandria had the nation’s second largest slave market, and lynchings occurred in Old Town. And while I believe our local law enforcement has handled itself far better than these other cases I’ve described, we must fight these twin scourges of systemic racism and police brutality here and everywhere. While I have no power in Minnesota, Kentucky, Georgia, or at the Federal level, I am determined to do what I can in Virginia to limit these evils in the Commonwealth.
What Have We Done?
That is a heavy question. The short answer is: not enough. Below is a longer answer.
Police Reform has long been a focus of mine, but it was only this year, with Democrats newly in the majority, that Virginia has finally had significant progress in this regard. I requested to serve on the Courts of Justice and Public Safety Committees to help push legislation on these issues through the legislative process, and I was honored to be chosen as the Chair of the Public Safety Subcommittee, which gave me the opportunity to do just that.
Let’s start with what we’ve done on criminal justice reform. On July 1, 2020, the Virginia Police Body Cameras Law — a new law I wrote and introduced — will go into effect. It’s the first police body-camera law in Virginia and requires Virginia localities, prior to implementing body-worn cameras, to set up transparent written guidelines for their use after public comment based on model guidelines developed by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS).
DCJS developed its model policy after receiving and incorporating suggestions from community members, police, defense attorneys, prosecutors, the NAACP, and others. I’ve been introducing this bill every single year since my first election in 2015. Only this year was it passed into law. However, this is just the beginning; I support requiring every single patrol officer in Virginia to be filmed while interacting with the public on duty, and I support providing the funding necessary to make it happen.
This year, I also voted for the Virginia Community Policing Act, a far-reaching measure that prohibits racial profiling. This new law requires every single police officer and sheriff’s deputy in Virginia — both state police as well as local police and sheriffs — to record the race, age, gender, and ethnicity of the vehicle occupants of every single motor vehicle stop in the Commonwealth. They must also record the circumstances of each stop, including whether a warning was issued or whether the vehicle was searched. The vote was close when it came to the Public Safety Subcommittee which I chair. (Had I voted the other way, the bill would have died.) But I argued strongly for the legislation, and it passed my subcommittee and eventually passed the House and Senate and was signed by the Governor to become law.
We also passed a bill of mine (incorporated into another bill) to decrease Virginia law enforcement’s complicity in the brutalization of immigrants by ICE, by repealing requirements that local police report immigrants convicted of a misdemeanor to federal immigration enforcement. And we passed another law prohibiting law-enforcement officers from inquiring about the immigration status of a person who is a victim of or witness to a crime.
Criminal Justice Reform is critical as well. I introduced legislation which became law this year to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline by requiring training for Virginia teachers to include conflict de-escalation techniques so as to avoid the need for restraint, seclusion, or calling the police. I voted for legislation reducing the amount of time a child can be suspended from school and for legislation preventing school children from being charged with disorderly conduct for their behavior at school. We shouldn’t be criminalizing a child having a bad day. I also supported legislation raising the minimum age (from 14 to 16) at which a juvenile can be tried as an adult.
Since before I was elected, I have been calling for the legalization and regulation of marijuana. This year, my legislation to decriminalize marijuana, which I’ve also introduced in the past, was incorporated into another bill which passed into law. We all know that black Virginians are much more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white Virginians, even though both demographics use marijuana at roughly the same rate. I also copatroned legislation ending the practice of suspending drivers’ licenses for unpaid fines and fees, a policy that for years has only had the effect of making it harder for folks to earn a living, and in doing so, has pushed people to act in desperation. We raised the felony threshold for theft, we reinstated parole, and we required collection of data on solitary confinement.
Another bill that went through my subcommittee allows incarcerated individuals to earn credits (time off their sentence) through community work. We also passed a bill to repeal a law criminally punishing “habitual drunkards,” a law which was disproportionately enforced against people experiencing homelessness.
All these bills were signed into law by the Governor and will be in force starting July 1, 2020.
Reconsidering Our Racist Past
This year, we repealed a long series of archaic Jim Crow and segregation-era laws. For example, I introduced and we passed a new law which removes questions about race from marriage licenses and divorce applications. And my bill which became the Virginia Values Act added new powerful remedies for race-based discrimination in employment and public accommodations (as well as remedies for discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, and gender identity). We also banned hair discrimination this year, long a source of pain and anguish for black children in our schools.
We raised the minimum wage, expanded labor rights, and made housing more affordable, all of which will help to reduce the incidence of acts of desperation that we have criminalized. And we ended prison gerrymandering (another reform I proposed), which has disenfranchised black communities for generations.
Finally, my proposals to allow localities to move or contextualize Confederate monuments and to displace Virginia’s statue of Robert E. Lee in the US Capitol — bills I first introduced years ago — finally became law this year. I discuss this legislation, the history of how history was taught in the South, and what I think should be the fate of Confederate monuments in the video below.
If you want to read an even longer list of legislative accomplishments in the uniquely productive 2020 session, I advise you to check out the Session Newsletters on my website at MarkforDelegate.com or the annual letter I mailed to thousands of constituents this year, which you can also find on my website.
Enforcing the Law
Of course, institutionalized racism is not only about what the law is; it’s also about who is enforcing it, at all levels, from the police, to the prosecutors, to the judiciary.
In 2019, I endorsed two progressive, reform-minded Commonwealth’s Attorneys candidates challenging more establishment incumbents in Democratic primaries. Both of them won: Parisa Dehghani-Tafti of Arlington and Steve Descano of Fairfax, who is walking the walk regarding holding brutal police officers accountable (See below). And I’ve consulted with another real reformer, Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter, on occasions too numerous to count on proposed legislation and the values he ably brings to his office.
I’ve had multiple conversations with Chief Michael Brown of the Alexandria Police Department regarding implicit bias in policing, diverse hiring practices, individual cases in Alexandria, and de-escalation. I've been impressed by our local police chiefs' commitment to these principles. He fully recognizes it's a question of culture set by leaders at the top. In fact, Chief Brown and Chief Jay Farr of the Arlington Police participated along with Parisa and Bryan in the town hall I hosted in May, which I believe may have been the first such event hosted by an elected representative in Virginia following the murder of George Floyd.
I’ve also done my best to interview every single judge applying for a judicial position in Alexandria, Arlington, or Fairfax, both to increase the diversity of our local benches and to ensure that every judge appointed has a strong commitment to fairness and equal justice under the law.
SPOTLIGHT: This Week's Police Brutality in Fairfax County
Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Steve Descano
took immediate and decisive action to charge the offending officer.
Last week, in Fairfax County, a white Fairfax police officer sadistically tasered a black man who was not harming anyone or doing anything wrong other than muttering to himself semi-incoherently in the middle of an empty residential street. Perhaps the victim was mentally ill or drunk; it's hard to know. But most of the Fairfax police officers on scene were doing the right thing, trying to encourage him to leave the road and seek help. Then one officer arrived and walked straight up to the victim. Seemingly without asking any questions or seeking to understand the situation, the new officer violently tasered the confused man who began screaming out in pain. Vicious electric shocks apparently insufficient to satisfy the brutal cop, the officer beat the man with his taser. I don't know whether this despicable officer was wearing a body camera or not. But another officer was, and the footage is extremely disturbing. Because of that, I won't share it here, but I've given you enough information so you can google it. I was particularly disheartened to see this ruthless misconduct occur in Fairfax County.
There's only one silver lining to this gruesome episode: the quick and decisive action taken by the Fairfax Chief of Police and Commonwealth's Attorney. The day after the attack, this barbarous police officer was immediately removed from the force by Chief Edwin Roessler and charged with assault by Fairfax's Commonwealth Attorney's Steve Descano. (You may recall I endorsed Mr. Descano for Commonwealth's Attorney a year ago. Fairfax voters certainly made the right choice!) Chief Roessler then came forward and shared the disturbing video publicly and hosted a news conference that same day. But while I appreciate their transparency, I'm still extremely troubled that such a monster was hired in the first place. I look forward to the results of the internal investigation. What could possibly have have persuaded this police officer he could do such a vicious act and think he could get away with it?
What is to Be Done?
The Time is Now! Special Session this Summer
I’ve written about what we've done at length not to rest on my laurels or suggest that our work is done, but to let you know that my commitment to racial justice has long been a compass I’ve used to guide my work as a legislator. I plan to do more.
We are expected to be called into special session in August to deal with the budget impacts from the novel coronavirus pandemic. For that session, I’ve been working to ensure that these issues of racial justice and police reform are also considered this summer. I don’t believe Virginians should have to wait until next January, when the next regular session starts, for reforms to be implemented in July 2021.
Fortunately, House Speaker Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn agrees with me that police reform has to be on the table at our special session. It was important when Democrats took control that we choose a Speaker who would press aggressively for our progressive values. We chose well. I'm grateful for her leadership.
The culture of policing as a whole needs to change. We have tasked police officers with jobs they are not designed to do. People who are homeless or have mental-health and substance abuse issues need a social worker who can direct them to (sufficiently funded) programs to give them better lives. They don't need to be approached by a man with a gun, trained to see struggling people or black people as criminals.
In the past, the laws I have written focused on improving Virginia law on police-worn body cameras and requiring de-escalation training. We can build on these legal foundations. I believe every single police officer interacting with the public should be filmed when doing so. And I would insist that all law enforcement be trained in de-escalation strategies and techniques. Perhaps the clearest example of both the right way and the wrong way to police is the troubling incident that occured in Fairfax County just last week that I described above.
We must reinvent the police to focus on serving the community first and using violent force only as a last resort.
I couldn't agree more. It's why I took this picture at the protest I attended.
We need to reform police training techniques to emphasize de-escalation and sensitivity to implicit racial bias, mental health issues, and substance abuse. We need to change police culture and protocol so that the use of force is the last resort; and when force is used, it is used to the most minimal extent possible. We must ban chokeholds and other unnecessarily lethal techniques unless an officer is in mortal danger. No more tanks and military forces in our streets. No more tear gas, rubber bullets, or batons used on people exercising their First Amendment rights. And police should never be able to retaliate against civilians filing complaints or members of the press witnessing and peacefully challenging their conduct.
I also believe that it is important that, whenever possible, police officers should live in—and be from—the communities they are tasked with protecting. At the very least, it is vitally important that the police regularly interact with the community they are policing, so that they work with the community as a beneficial ally and not an alien occupier. We must abolish any kind of for-profit policing. No system should fund police departments through mass ticketing, arrests, and incarceration, as obviously, that incentivizes police in the wrong direction. Similarly, we must end for-profit prisons in Virginia; no one should profit from the taking of another's freedom or be rewarded for denying prisoners health care or nutritious food.
These are just some of the policy ideas I’m exploring. I’ll be consulting with the Attorney General to see if we can limit no-knock warrants to all but the most severe and violent circumstances. And I’ll try to curb “qualified immunity” in Virginia, the US-Supreme-Court-created doctrine that allows so many police officers nationwide to escape civil liability for their gross, violent misconduct.
Picture I took protesting at the White House
I’ll also be supporting the creation of a national and local police misconduct registry. Violent and racist cops should not be passed around from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Virginia cities and counties shouldn't hire rogue cops from other states or other Virginia localities. Nor should we allow our police officers, have been disciplined for misconduct, to apply outside the Commonwealth with unsullied records.
And I support community oversight. We need increased powers to investigate police misconduct, including the ability to use Civilian Review Boards and hire outside investigators when local police would otherwise be too closely connected with their local investigators. Police unions should be able to advocate for better pay, benefits, or working conditions, but localities must not be restrained in the power to immediately remove rogue officers from the field to ensure community safety.
If you have suggestions on these proposed reforms or recommendations of your own, please do not hesitate to write me back or discuss your ideas with me at one of Mark’s Monthly Meetups.
My Community Activity
I’ve been joining the peaceful protests in DC, and I spoke at an Alexandria vigil for George Floyd and other victims of police brutality. It was encouraging to see thousands in Alexandria and hundreds of thousands in DC working together for the cause. I’ve also written extensively on Facebook and Twitter about police brutality and systemic racism, and I've shared my outrage at the President’s tear-gassing and shooting peaceful protesters for his church photo op. I've tried to facilitate discussions for the community, including by hosting a Town Hall with Local Law Enforcement Leaders back in May and a Listening Session on Racism, Police Brutality, and a Path Forward. I described the first town hall in a prior newsletter, and I'll tell you about the second one below.
With Heidi Zansler, David Lord (Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney for Alexandria),
and Greg Parks (Alexandria's Clerk of Court) at a recent Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, D.C.
I will continue to facilitate these important discussions and give my constituents a forum to share their experiences, opinions, and suggestions for reform. I provide video of my most recent discussion below.
VIDEO: Listening Session on Racism, Police Brutality, and a Path Forward
Last Sunday's Listening Session encompassed not just issues of racial justice and police brutality and white privilege but many other related issues, such as: 1) proper teaching techniques in our schools and how to reach out to struggling students; 2) how to encourage folks in historically persecuted groups to raise their voices and make their needs known and what elected leaders can do to reach out to them; and 3) what policies we can do to improve racial justice in Alexandria.
Thank you to all who took part, including Alexandria School Board Member Meagan Alderton, who spoke about our country's "raw, brutal" history with race. She said something about George Floyd that resonated with me and I encourage you to think about: "He probably spent his entire life with a knee on his neck."
Black Lives Matter
I think most folks reading this newsletter understand that Black Lives Matter and why we must continue to say so. I think those of us with means have a responsibility to support the work of organizers who have been leading the fight to end white supremacy and police brutality for a long time. That's why I decided to join the local NAACP. You don't have to be a person of color to support the NAACP by becoming a member. And I encourage you to do so.
I also urge you to support Tenants and Workers United, which focuses on empowering immigrants and other residents of Arlandria/Chirilagua:
We have come a long way, but we still have a lot to accomplish. Let’s work together to make sure that this time, the reforms stick. And for that, I’ll need your support not just in Virginia but across the nation. Let’s spread the word together: Black Lives Matter.
I thank you again for the honor and privilege of serving you.
Delegate Mark Levine
Proudly serving Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax
in the Virginia House of Delegates