RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia House of Delegates adjourned in honor of Tyre Nichols on Monday. It was their first gathering since video was released Friday night, showing Memphis police officers beating the 29-year-old FedEx worker, who later died in the hospital.
Both sides of the aisle stood to approve the motion from House Minority Leader Don Scott (D-Portsmouth). But despite the brief moment of unity, legislators remain divided on the path forward for police reform.
“Go back and watch that video of this young man yelling for his mother while he was being beaten to death by people who he thought were sworn to protect him, and when you take your votes to repeal these types of community policing acts, think about that cry,” Scott said in a floor speech on Monday.
Under Democratic leadership, the Virginia General Assembly passed a package of more than a dozen police reforms in 2020 that remain on the books — including measures banning chokeholds, limiting no-knock warrants and setting stricter criteria for the use of force. Lawmakers also expanded what officers can be decertified for in Virginia and created a “duty to intervene” if one officer witnesses another using unlawful, deadly force.
“There are some who want us to go backwards and we can’t have it,” Scott said.
GOP lawmakers are trying to repeal some, but not all, of those reforms during the 2023 session.
Chesterfield Police Chief Jeff Katz, who is also the president of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said what happened in Memphis was “a disgrace to the badge,” but he doesn’t think police reform is the answer.
“We’re not safer because of the police reform efforts of 2020. They were reflexive, they were emotional, they were ill-informed and they made our jobs more complicated,” Katz said. “The notion is ridiculous that police reform can fix problems of the heart. The activity that occurred was illegal. Laws already existed to prohibit and preclude that conduct.”
At least one Democrat, Del. David Bulova (D-Fairfax), sided with Republicans last week to remove provisions that prevent police from pulling people over for some minor traffic offenses, including busted brake lights, tinted windows and excessively loud exhaust systems. The bill passed the House on a vote of 53-45, but is likely to face an uphill battle in the Democrat-controlled state Senate.
Supporters of the bill argue restricting these traffic stops makes the roads less safe and strips law enforcement of a key investigative tool. Opponents say repealing the law will increase unnecessary police encounters that disproportionately target people of color.
A bill from Del. Marie March (R-Floyd) aims to repeal the Community Policing Act, which prohibits officers from engaging in bias-based profiling and requires data collection on race. The legislation has yet to be heard in a subcommittee.
A recent state report stemming from the legislation found Black and Hispanic drivers were more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested by police than white drivers in Virginia. Critics argued the data collection was inherently flawed and could be used to paint a misleading picture of police practices.
Another bill, which passed in the House last week, would require each law-enforcement civilian oversight body to include at least one retired officer as a voting member. It also clarifies that the recommendations of these independent review boards are advisory, but law enforcement agencies would have to justify any rejections in writing.
As Democrats defend past legislative victories on police reform, at least one failed effort is not being revisited this session.
Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond) said he is not introducing a bill to eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement because it didn’t have a chance in a politically divided government. Past proposals from Bourne sought to make it easier for people to win civil lawsuits against officers accused of misconduct.
“I think it’s too early to talk about any new legislation,” Scott said when asked about taking on qualified immunity. “I think what we need to do right now is use the tools that we do have to keep our communities safe.”
In a statement on Friday, Governor Glenn Youngkin condemned the beating of Nichols in Memphis but he didn’t specifically call for additional police reform.
“The disturbing and shocking video released this evening displays incomprehensible violence towards another human being and we must condemn these heinous actions,” Youngkin wrote.