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WATCH NOW: Top Va. law enforcement figures oppose some proposed laws, but agree fixes are needed

WATCH NOW: Top Va. law enforcement figures oppose some proposed laws, but agree fixes are needed

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Representatives of the largest law enforcement organizations in Virginia on Thursday vented over some of the legislation pending in the Virginia General Assembly and the current state of their profession's public image.

But representatives of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, the Virginia Sheriffs' Association, the Virginia State Police Association and the Virginia Fraternal Order of police, also acknowledged during a news conference that there are problems that need correcting and welcomed some of the measures proposed by lawmakers.

The officials said they opposed proposals that include: ending qualified immunity that protects officers from some civil liability; ending felony punishment for assaulting a law enforcement officer; eliminating school resource officers; and establishing citizen review boards.

Some of the proposals, they contend, would endanger police, suspects and the public and could actually increase the risk of police shootings.

Many of the numerous bills now before the Virginia legislature and styled as police reform, were introduced in the wake of highly publicized police killings — such as that of George Floyd in Minneapolis — and the use of force against Black Lives Matter and other protesters in Richmond and other cities across the state and the U.S.

Some proponents of the measures argue there is institutional racial bias in many police departments and that major funding and structural changes are required. Other legislation, intended to make police more accountable, sought to end qualified immunity. (A Senate committee on Thursday afternoon voted to set aside legislation from Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, to end qualified immunity. The panel will set up a subcommittee to further investigate the issue.)

Speaking along with the others at Thursday's news conference, Wayne Huggins, executive director of the Virginia State Police Association and former superintendent of the state police, noted that he began working in public safety more than 50 years ago.

"During my career in law enforcement, I have never witnessed lower morale than there is today throughout Virginia's law enforcement community," said Huggins.

He said police and deputy sheriffs in Virginia have millions of contacts with members of the public each year. "Well over 99% of the time, these interactions are professional and occur without incident," he said.

"However, to listen to the uninformed rhetoric that we hear today, one would think that we're completely out of control and unprofessional and do not care about the safety and security of those we are sworn to serve and protect. Nothing could be further from the truth," said Huggins.

He added, however, "This is not to say that we are perfect. Indeed, we are not. Like all professions, we have our occasional bad apple. But let me be clear, we do not want bad cops carrying a badge. We want them gone from our profession. Period."

"To that end, we support — we support — an enhanced decertification process and standards of conduct that allows us to not only rid our agencies of these bad cops, but also prevents them from jumping from agency to agency," he said.

He said police also support the establishment of a database that can track bad officers who have left one department, to avoid having other departments hire them.

Huggins said his association also supports the use of body cameras. "We know what the recordings will reveal — that over 99% of the time it will show what we have to put up with and what we have to endure as police officers," he said.

He said the Virginia Senate asked law enforcement for its input in proposed legislation and included some of it in pending bills.

A sweeping package of police and criminal justice reforms introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, which passed the Senate in a narrow, party-line vote Thursday, is one example, he said.

"We can live with that particular bill," said Huggins.

"On the other hand, the House of Delegates has largely ignored our thoughts and considerations and they passed several pieces of legislation that in reality, in reality, will only hurt and indeed impede law enforcement and in the end not only will law enforcement suffer; it is our citizens who are going to suffer," said Huggins.

He said, "They can expect to see crime rates increase in all types of crimes, they will see an increase in highway fatalities, injuries and property damage."

Huggins said he disagrees with those who assert that ending qualified immunity would not result in an influx of lawsuits. He noted that a fiscal impact statement prepared by the Virginia Department of Planning and Budget says that ending qualified immunity could "substantially impact" the resources of the office of the attorney general as well as law enforcement agencies.

Qualified immunity protects government officials performing discretionary tasks from civil suits unless it can be shown that the official violated clearly established constitutional rights or a law that a reasonable official would have known.

Police say it protects them against frivolous lawsuits, but not from lawsuits involving legitimate claims of egregious misconduct.

Maggie DeBoard, the chief of police for the Town of Herndon in Fairfax County, said, "the greatest threat to our profession is the proposed elimination of qualified immunity."

"There is a myth being perpetuated that qualified immunity protects bad cops. It does not and it has not protected any of the bad cops that I have been a part of firing or separating over my 34 years in the job. It has never protected bad cops from engaging in criminal behavior or significant misconduct," she said.

DeBoard said, "We know how to get rid of bad cops."

She said police need qualified immunity. "We are the only ones covered in the statute who have to make quick, split-second decisions, under stress, sometimes in the face of extreme violence and are expected to not to make a mistake — and by the way we are constantly filmed while we are doing it," said DeBoard.

Police need to continue to act without fear of lawsuits, she said. The passage of a bill ending qualified immunity would cause good officers to leave at a time when they are needed the most, argued DeBoard.

DeBoard said public opinion of police and other first responders was high 19 years ago after the events of 9/11. She said if anything the profession is even better today.

"What's changed is that many in power in politics in the media and various groups throughout our community — they have pitted our communities against us due to the misconduct of a very, very small number of bad cops and they are spreading false information and rhetoric about our profession and it's working," she said.

She welcomed the chance to speak with senators and delegates on both sides of the aisle to make some of the bills better. However, DeBoard complained that some of what is being touted as police reform does more harm than good.

Tim Carter, the sheriff of Shenandoah County and president of the Virginia Sheriffs' Association, said that, particularly in the case of sheriffs, there is no need for public review boards. Sheriffs are elected — "the ultimate citizen review," he said.

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