The Virginia legislature is considering laws that would remove qualified immunity for law enforcement officers.
The proposed legislation would remove protection for police officers that prevents individuals from suing an officer in civil court under certain circumstances.
It should be noted that even with qualified immunity, individual police officers can be sued in civil court for clearly violating police guidelines. Qualified immunity protects officers that act in good faith and according to police regulations from being sued in civil court by offenders.
Bourne says that the repeal of qualified immunity “is one of those things that has to be changed if we’re really talking about reform and we’re really talking about fairness.”
State Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) is expected to carry the bill in the Senate.
Neither Surovell nor his office responded to a request for comment as of press time.
Opponents of the proposed legislation have expressed concerns on the effect such a repeal would have on police forces across the state.
Senator Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania) sees the repeal of qualified immunity as a hurdle to retaining police officers. Citing police forces he’s spoken to in Fairfax and Prince William, Reeves said that many officers are either considering retirement or have already “put in their paperwork” to leave their department.
Reeves stated that he is not opposed to looking at qualified immunity policies to “see if [they need] some tweaks.” However, Reeves believes that “if you were to just wipe away immunity, you are going to wipe away your police forces.”
Reeves also said that he’s been told “morale has been at its all-time lowest” among Richmond police officers.
Reeves sees the proposed legislation as a “detrimental to recruiting,” which he said will be Virginia police’s “number one issue.”
Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman echoed these sentiments, saying that repealing qualified immunity would “open all law enforcement to lawsuits” and remove “incentives for anybody to get into law enforcement.”
Chapman points out that officers called to a scene sometimes have seconds to respond to react to highly dangerous situations that “develop instantaneously” and must make “snap judgments on circumstances [they] often know little about.”
Removing qualified immunity could hinder an officer’s reaction time or could negatively impact their decision-making as they may worry about a potential civil suit.
“You’re open to a civil lawsuit which then could just devastate you and your family and everything you’ve worked for,” said Chapman. “It’s not like law enforcement officers are making a ton of money, either…. They’re trying to protect the citizens. They’re doing the best they can under very difficult circumstances.”
Chapman said that morale among law enforcement across Virginia “is very bad.” He said that departments throughout the state “are having a hard time recruiting” and retaining officers.
“Why would you want to put yourself through that if you’re going to… get civilly sued for a mistake you make out there?” asked Chapman. “It’s very problematic.”
“They’re having a hard time keeping people. A lot of people are retiring early,” said Chapman.
If the proposed legislation passes, Chapman asserted that it “would be problematic for everybody.”
“To take that protection away is unconscionable,” Chapman said.
The Virginia Legislature will meet in a special session to discuss this and other bills on August 18.
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Sam Medley is a journalist at the Tennessee Star and Star News Network. You can follow Sam at Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]
Photo “Scott Surovell” by Scott Surovell. Photo “Jeff Bourne” by Jeff Bourne. Background Photo “Virginia House of Delegates” by Germanna CC. CC BY 2.0.