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Legislative Efforts To ‘Police the Police’ Fall Short

Police in line
Police wear riot-control gear during a Black Lives Matter protest last June. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Virginia Democrats continued to push for legislation this session to hold law enforcement accountable for misconduct.

But most of those efforts to “police the police” were cut short.

A proposal to require police agencies to release body-worn camera footage to the public following use-of-force incidents failed to pass the House of Delegates.

This disappointed police reform advocates like Chelsea Higgs Wise.

“The conversations about releasing the body cam tapes, for me, really said that we’re not going to listen to community voices,” she said. “When we say we need to hear the tapes, when we say our side of the story, legislators said, ‘We’re still going to take the word of cops.’”

Advocates called for a litany of changes this summer after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police last spring. Floyd’s death sparked protests nationwide and in Richmond, involving numerous arrests and clashes with local police.

Another change advocates sought was to end qualified immunity, a policy that protects government officials, including law enforcement, from civil lawsuits in most cases. Ending the policy would let Virginians sue police officers for violating their rights under the state constitution. 

Those who support qualified immunity say it’s necessary to protect officers in the line of duty who are forced to make difficult, split-second decisions.

“The biggest misconception is that a law enforcement officer cannot be held accountable for his actions,” said John Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs Association. “The proponents of this bill say law enforcement officers can do whatever they want and walk away. That is incorrect. That does not happen.”

Lawmakers in the House left the bill in committee. The Senate had an alternative approach to qualified immunity that also failed.

Higgs Wise said the complex nature of the issue has lawmakers frozen in place.

“Right now, not many people could tell you exactly what qualified immunity does and what it wouldn’t do if we stopped it. And I think that’s true for some legislators if I’m being honest.”

Another police accountability bill -- one that would require law enforcement officers to report misconduct among their ranks -- is still up for consideration.

The House approved the measure last month and it’s scheduled to be heard in a Senate Committee in the coming days. The bill requires officers to report wrongdoing to their supervisors or face potential termination or demotion. It’s similar to a bill lawmakers approved during a special session last summer, requiring officers to intervene if they see a colleague using excessive force.

Del. Mark Levine, who introduced the bill, said it’s meant to weed out “bad apples.”

The bill also adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the definition of profiling.

Opponents say the requirements are subjective and would be difficult to apply and enforce.

Updated 2/11/2021:
Not all law enforcement bills this session focused on accountability. Democratic Sen. John Edwards introduced a bill to create a public safety trust fund. This would raise the vehicle registration fee by $4 to shore up about $28.5 million for Virginia State Police. The Senate passed the same bill last year but the House didn’t take it up.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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