Tensions flare as Virginia lawmakers debate police reforms

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Tensions flared Thursday as Virginia lawmakers took up a series of reforms that Republicans denounced as anti-police and Democrats insisted are long overdue.
The Democratic-controlled House of Delegates advanced more than a half dozen police reform bills — including legislation to prohibit the use of chokeholds and no-knock search warrants, eliminate qualified immunity for police in state lawsuits and make it easier to decertify police officers for misconduct. But before the debate on those bills even started, Republicans clashed with Democrats over whether the proposals are unfair to police.
The special legislative session, which began last month, was called by Gov. Ralph Northam to address the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and to consider proposed police and criminal justice reforms in the aftermath of the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Republican Del. William C. Wampler III said he was baffled by the overriding focus on police reforms when the state is reeling from the effects of the pandemic, including high unemployment, the widespread shutdown of small businesses and the struggles of students and parents as many schools remain closed because of the ongoing health risks.
Wampler said some of the reform bills seek to criminalize the actions of police who are doing their jobs.
“What I see is a lot of legislation that is pitting groups, people against each other. They are pitting Virginians and society against the same people who go to work every day and try to protect us,” he said.
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, who has sponsored some of the police reform bills, vehemently disagreed with Wampler’s comments.
“There’s too much rhetoric on the other side of the aisle that we are somehow anti-police. That could not be further from the truth,” she said.
“These are hard issues, yes. Some of these things that you see on the agenda are difficult, but we were elected to do what is difficult.”
Republican Del. Glenn Davis Jr. said he has participated in two protest marches since Floyd’s killing. He said the bills focusing on police and racial justice are “emotional for all of us,” but said he believes some of the legislation has been rushed.
“I think we are going way too quickly through a lot of this stuff,” he said.
Del. Lamont Bagby, chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said the reforms are long overdue.
“We’ve been waiting far too long,” he said.
“This is not a war against police. This is a war for justice,” he added.
During Thursday’s virtual House session, the debate focused largely on the no-knock warrant legislation, unofficially called “Breonna’s Law” after Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who was fatally shot March 13 in her Louisville, Kentucky, home by policing serving a no-knock search warrant.
Republicans said the no-knock warrant would endanger police officer’s lives and make it easier for criminals to destroy evidence. Democrats said it was needed to protect wrongful deaths of innocent people like Taylor.
The police reform bills are expected to come up for a final House vote on Friday.