Since the murder of George Floyd, clearly the issues of policing and criminal justice reform have received much more focus than they had previously, with Democrats here in Virginia pushing for progressive, evidence-based reforms that might actually make a difference. At least so far, Republicans have not engaged constructively for the most part, instead engaging in appalling fearmongering and demagoguery, with Democrats pushing back hard, explaining that what Democrats are doing is NOT about “defunding police or eroding laws”; is NOT about letting violent criminals run amok; but IS about – as Sen. Jennifer Boysko explained very well – “thoughtful, evidence-based ways to reform our prison system…police reform that we’re worked hand-in-hand with our chiefs of police…the state police…the sheriffs…These are commonsense things…We want a safer community for everyone…”
So what *are* Virginia Democrats proposing? On the House of Delegates side, Democrats have a package that includes commonsense stuff like: “Banning the use of chokeholds and other lethal restraints used by law enforcement”; “Eliminating certain pretextual police stops”; “Banning sexual relations between officers and arrestees”; “Mandating the duty of one officer to report and intervene during the misconduct of another officer”; “Requiring decertification of law enforcement officers who fail to properly perform their duties”; “Strengthening the assessments and vetting required before hiring law enforcement officers”; “Demilitarizing police departments”; “Strengthening laws related to Citizen Review Panels”; “Prohibiting no-knock warrants”; etc. In other words, all stuff that’s both commonsense and constructive, without hurting the ability of police to do their jobs in a professional manner. As for Virginia Senate Democrats, they have proposed many of the same things as House Democrats. One difference appears to be on the issue of “qualified immunity,” with House Democrats listing “Eliminating qualified immunity for law enforcement officers” in their reform agenda, while Senate Democrats don’t list that.
On this topic, Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran was on WRVA talk radio this morning, and was specifically asked about the issue of reforming – or even getting rid of – qualified immunity for police officers. Here’s what Moran had to say:
- “The governor has not – we have not – put in a bill [on qualified immunity]…Last Friday, we walked through a number of bills around police reform, about training…decertification, duty to intervene…we have six bills, all different concepts.”
- “The qualified immunity is a real…I know it’s a movement out there. I think people need to understand all of its intended as well as unintended consequences of what that would mean. So, we’ll look at it.”
- “Senate Judiciary…they did not put the bill forward. So, knowing that the Senate has not proceeded that way, the House has not started yet in terms of their committee work, so we’ll have to review that. But qualified immunity has a lot of challenges, the ones you mentioned and there are additional ones.”
- “The governor has not put in that bill. Neither has the Senate. So we’ll have to see how the legislature proceeds.”
- “We’re researching it, because it really does have a number of consequences that everybody needs to consider before that proceeds ahead.”
- “People want accountability…they want to root out bad police officers, we want that trust in the community reestablished if it doesn’t already exist. And there are ways to do that. I think that’s why the governor has put in his bills about training and decertification to root out, to identify..if a police officer has misbehaved or violated policy…in one department…that information is shared with other departments, so that they don’t go ahead and hire them...I think there’s a method by which we can achieve accountability, reestablish that trust, and something like qualified immunity…let’s do this in a way that doesn’t…you know, it’s August, that’s a very difficult issue, let’s study it…nothing wrong with being a little bit more deliberative…”
I agree – let’s be very deliberative about this, really study it, for the reasons Secretary Moran mentioned and also that were discussed the other day by Sarah Graham Taylor, the legislative director for the City of Alexandria, who worried about: “a slippery slope issue when it comes to qualified immunity and sovereign immunity and the immunities that are that are granted to employees of governmental entities and the protections that they receive with regard to doing their job,’ potentially ‘opening a Pandora’s box.’”
Personally, my view is that the measures proposed by Gov. Northam, House and Senate Democrats – such as decertification, plus a registry and civilian review – go a long long way towards police accountability. Let’s try those out for a while, see how they work, and if they don’t do the job, then we can rethink possible changes to qualified immunity.