The sheriffs in Shenandoah and Warren counties said they are supportive of reforming law enforcement and want to see their officers held to higher standards but are concerned that legislators are hurrying some things through during this year’s special session.
Virginia joined the rest of the country in convulsions of action to protest the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota earlier this year. Floyd’s killing sparked nationwide protests and drew attention to other high profile incidents of police misconduct that resulted in the deaths of men and women — predominantly Black men and women – at the hands of white officers.
To show solidarity with the movement, legislators in Virginia promised to address questions about police brutality and misconduct during the special session, which began in August, adding several weighty discussions to an already tenuous budget process that was complicated by COVID-19. Nearly a month after the session began, and several iterations of some bills that have been killed and brought back to life, police associations are getting a peek at what appear to be the final versions of bills that are set to land on the governor’s desk soon.
Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy Carter said law enforcement organizations, including the Virginia Sheriffs Association of which he is president, have tried to work closely with legislators to ensure understanding by both sides about what is happening in Richmond. Those talks have been productive, Carter said, but there are still some issues that the Democrat-led House of Delegates and Senate felt they needed to pursue despite resistance from law enforcement officials and organizations.
“We’re supportive, I'm supportive of law enforcement reform,” Carter said. “We just want to make sure there are good decisions to be made that come out of Richmond.”
Big-ticket items that Carter said most, if not all, police and police organizations support include improving the system of decertifying officers who misbehave and establishing a database that includes those officers so they can’t get another job in another district. Police also support bills that empower officers to intervene if they see another officer acting improperly while on the job — a question that several people raised when video showed officers not intervening in the situation where Floyd was killed.
Warren County Sheriff Mark Butler said he expects officers — and chiefs of police as well as sheriffs in particular — to be held to the highest standard possible. But, he said, it seems like people are jumping to conclusions about police without considering the knock-on effects some bills will have.
The Senate killed a bill that would provide a workaround qualified immunity — a legal shield that protects individual officers from facing lawsuits if they unknowingly violate a person’s clearly established constitutional rights — but the prospect of it returning looms large over Butler.
“People are not going to get into this profession and law enforcement is going to suffer,” he said.
Butler said that qualified immunity gives officers peace of mind that if they make a mistake — not an intentional flouting of rules — they are not going to face frivolous lawsuits that tie up their resources. Without the assurance of legal protection, Butler said, recruiting qualified candidates will be a challenge and keeping them will be even harder.
“Local law enforcement is going to be a stepping stone,” Butler said. “People are not going to make law enforcement a career anymore.”
Carter also expressed frustration with the move to lower the punishment for assaulting a law enforcement officer from being a felony as well as local governments establishing citizen review committees for sheriffs.
“Sheriffs have the ultimate citizen review — that’s an election,” Carter said. “We do engage citizens in operations of the agency, but we oppose the way it's being proposed in Richmond.”
While police associations lost some battles with legislators or claimed temporary victory, there are concerns that issues will return in January. Carter said associations fought hard to take defunding school resource officer programs out of legislation and succeeded, but that he expects it to return in the next session.
“Just because maybe the school resource officer program in a certain district is not what the community wants it to be ... or what a certain lobbying organization thinks it should be,” Carter said, “doesn't mean school resource officer programs throughout the commonwealth aren’t good and positive and good programs.”
Police reform is not a negative thing, Butler said, and there should be even more stringent measures in place when it comes to how police departments are reviewed. He said he would like to see a national accreditation program for departments rather than state-level ones and that his priority from day one in office was to ensure his office made it back to being accredited.
To move the process along, his office has enforced stricter self-policing methods to reveal and deal with misconduct by officers.
“We have a quarterly review on every officer as opposed to annually or bi-annually,” Butler said. “That way we can find possible issues or problems that may be arising and hopefully nip it before they get worse.”