As Virginia legislators push forward with criminal reform bills, police warn that reform will leave officers without enough tools and protections to do their jobs.
Last week, the Senate passed a bill that, if it becomes law, will end mandatory minimum felony sentences for those who assault police. Other measures being considered include bans on choke holds, elimination of no-knock warrants, and an end to qualified immunity.
State Delegate Lee Carter (D-Manassas City) has also proposed an amendment that would cut 2021 state funds to local police by over $50 million, a decrease of 25 percent from 2020. The cuts are bundled with broad cuts across the budget aimed at reducing COVID-19 spending, but are a big change compared to the over $8 million cut originally proposed.
“This would of course be an unprecedented effort to cut funding for local police,” Delegate Rob Bell (R-Albemarle) said.
“It’s disgusting that you have people that know nothing about law enforcement, the dangers of this job, that are making these decisions to change laws without having any concept of how difficult, dangerous this job could be,” Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman said.
He warned that removing minimum sentencing guidelines could have serious consequences.
“All that does is it invites somebody to assault a law enforcement officer,” Chapman said. “I think that’s reprehensible.”
“There’s got to be something significant that stops people from thinking that they have the freedom to assault any kind of [law enforcement officer],” Chapman added.
Chapman noted that choke holds are already not used, except in extreme situations where an officer is fighting for their life. He said there is also a push to ban less-than-lethal force like pepper spray, tasers, and batons.
“What that does is it puts law enforcement officers in a position where they have nothing but lethal force or nothing at all,” Chapman said. “The best that you can do is defend yourself with your fists and nothing else, or, you’re going to have to go all the way with a handgun, and then you’re trying to defend yourself and the next thing you know, somebody’s catching this on videotape.”
Chapman also warned against removing qualified immunity, a legal protection that keeps individual officers from being sued unless they have violated the law. He said, “If they take away qualified immunity that means anyone that is a law enforcement officer in the Commonwealth of Virginia would be susceptible to having to pay out a civil suit.”
Chapman warned that the combination of these kinds of laws together would be dangerous.
“You have absolutely no protection when responding to situations not of your own choosing. You’re put in a position where it becomes easy for someone to assault you. Then you have really no means of defending yourself, and then you can get sued when you do try to defend yourself. When you look at all these things, when you put them together, it’s a disaster, an absolute disaster.”
The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police (VACP) is opposed to ending qualified immunity and removing minimum sentences for assaults on law enforcement officers.
“We are extremely concerned that passing these two proposals will result in a mass exodus of good officers from this profession. This also will make recruitment of highly qualified candidates nearly impossible in the future. With an average starting salary hovering in the mid $40k range, who would want to do this job? Many agencies already are experiencing resignations or early retirements due to this fear,” VACP Executive Director Dana Schrad wrote in a letter.
Chapman noted that most law enforcement officers are doing good jobs, especially in the context of millions of police to citizen interactions, with only a few resulting in bad incidents.
Chapman said, “You have to look at each [case] individually and see what happens with each contact, how they respond, whether they were pushed, whether they were shoved, but what I’ve seen out there from the videos … I think law enforcement officers have exercised amazing restraint under a lot of harassment.”
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