Law enforcement groups share concerns of police reform legislation under consideration

Law enforcement groups share concerns of police reform legislation under consideration
Several law enforcement groups shared concerns regarding police reform legislation under consideration in the Virginia General Assembly (Source: NBC12)

CHESTERFIELD, Va. (WWBT) - Several law enforcement groups voiced their concerns Thursday over several pieces of police reform legislation under consideration in the General Assembly.

Representatives from the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police (VACP), the Virginia Sheriffs Association, the Virginia State Police Association and the Virginia Fraternal Order of Police all said there were some bills and measures they support, however, some under consideration could be detrimental to public safety.

"Efforts to eliminate qualified immunity, decrease funding for state and local law enforcement and “defelonizing” assault and battery on a law enforcement officer will do nothing but erode our ability to effectively provide public safety services," stated VACP President Chief Howard Hall. “Many of the proposed police reforms will do nothing to protect victims or reduce crime.”

House Bill 5013, which was passed Tuesday by the House of Delegates, would eliminate qualified immunity for officers. This would allow lawsuits by citizens who claim police have violated their constitutional rights to move forward in state court.

“What I fear is that we’re going to have officers who pause and I feel like that is going to have a detrimental effect to public safety,” said Chesterfield Chief of Police Jeffrey Katz. “That’s what it’s really about.”

Many of these groups said it would increase the need for more resources, especially at the Virginia Office of the Attorney General to handle the influx of lawsuits and could severely impact staffing at these agencies.

“I know of police officers in my jurisdiction who are waiting to see what happens to decide if they want to continue this as a career,” Hall said.

Even now, these groups say finding recruits has been difficult.

“As of last Friday {Virginia State Police] has 312 vacancies,” said Wayne Huggins, Executive Director for the Virginia State Police Association. “We have an another approximately 300 sworn personnel who are eligible for retirement and who, I know for a fact, are contacting our personnel department asking what do I have to do to apply?”

“Who - right now - would want to be a law enforcement officer in Virginia?” Hall asked.

On Thursday, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary voted down HB5013.

According to Virginia Mercury reporter Ned Oliver, the committee said they’re concerned it would go beyond allegations of brutality and excessive force and allow too many petty lawsuits to proceed.

“The vast majority of Virginia police officers are dedicated public servants who want to serve and protect their communities,” said VACP Executive Director Dana Schrad. “Tragically, we expect to see many officers leave policing and very few new applicants. The General Assembly won’t have to defund our agencies if our people walk away from public service.”

Meanwhile, these groups said changes do need to happen, but acknowledge it’s going to take some time and a lot of resources.

“Public policy that is informed by the emotion of the day will be woefully insufficient to address the concerns for tomorrow,” Katz said.

While several lawmakers have asked for input from these groups, they said others have not.

“I respect their passion, I respect their desire for strong systems and equal justice for everyone in our community, but we have to do so in a collaborative way,” Katz added.

“These members and perhaps others are doing nothing more than pandering to radical activists for their own political gain,” Hall said. “Unfortunately, these actions are likely to lead to increased danger, not only for our officers, deputies and troopers but for our citizens.”

“It has been extremely disappointing to see most of these legislative proposals developed with little or no input from Virginia law enforcement,” added Herndon Chief and VACP 1st Vice President Maggie DeBoard. “We provided a detailed document of proposals to the Governor and General Assembly in June and have reached out to legislators throughout this special session. Only a handful of legislators really worked with us, but an overwhelming number had little interest in hearing our concerns.”

There are several reform measures these groups support including the use of body cameras, stronger standards for decertifying officers that violate critical policies or are untruthful, along with enhanced crisis intervention team training. Most agencies only receive 40 hours of CIT training at the academy.

“That training includes blocks and helps officers identify people that are suffering from a mental health problem or crisis, as opposed to other things,” Hall said. “It also helps teach techniques to help de-escalate those situations. So, we think that’s really important.”

However, these groups again cite the need for more resources in order to accommodate these resources. It’s a situation, where for most of these localities, state funding would not be provided, creating financial burdens for local governments.

Meanwhile, on Thursday the Senate passed a sweeping police reform package with a vote along party lines that was 21-19.

They included legislation to prohibit the use of choke-holds and no-knock search warrants, and to make it easier to decertify police officers for misconduct.

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