Northam Won't 'Dismantle' Police, Wants Local Governments to Handle Statue Removal
*Alan Rodriguez Espinoza contributed to this story.
Governor Ralph Northam announced that he is extending work of his racial equity commission. During today’s briefing, Northam said the commission will increase protections for minorities and look at current state laws and regulations that create inequities. Commission members will look specifically at public safety, criminal justice, health, housing, and voting. The group first convened last year and recommended striking discriminatory language from state law books.Those changes were approved by the General Assembly earlier this year. Northam said he is very proud of the commission’s work, and expects their recommendations by November 15th.
The Governor said he still intends to remove the state-owned Robert E. Lee statue from its pedestal on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. The monuments were described by Northam as “divisive” and “glorify a racist and painful time in our history.” He added that pulling down these statues must be done safely, and cited the injury of a civilian in Portsmouth that was injured while attempting to take one down.
“I know these statues are causing a lot of pain, but pulling them down is not worth risking someone’s life. So let the local governments take the responsibility for taking these statues down safely. Let’s do this the right way and keep all Virginians safe.”
In response to demands from protesters to “defund the police,” Northam told reporters he doesn’t support dismantling law enforcement agencies. He said police provide an important service.
“When we talk about defunding, I wouldn’t look at it as defunding, I would look at it as how do we best prioritize the funding that we do have,” Northam said.
The Governor said he believes police departments should focus on increasing the diversity of their staff, emphasizing de-escalation over the use of force, and investing in body cameras.
“That’s the way I would approach it and I think that’s the way the police departments want to approach it as we discuss reform,” he said.
Northam said he is planning town halls across the state to hear from communities on these issues. Earlier today, Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn confirmed the General Assembly will take up police reform bills during a special session in August.
Republican lawmakers say Northam's response doesn't offer a firm commitment to protect funding for police departments. House Minority leader Todd Gilbert says the movement to "defund the police" attempts to cut the resources officers need to keep our communities safe.
The Governor said while COVID-19 cases have recently spiked across the country, Virginia has seen a downward trend in infections. In a slideshow, Northam showed that cases have been decreasing since the end of May. In another chart, the Governor also explained that the number of COVID 19 deaths have shown similar results of a downward trend. Despite the decrease, Northam still warned of the danger of the virus.
“I cannot emphasize strongly enough that this virus is still with us and everyone needs to continue to behave cautiously,” said Northam.
The Governor also announced that Richmond will enter phase two starting Friday, along with the northern Virginia area. Northam said that as more businesses reopen, it is even more important for Virginians to keep each other safe while going out. This includes washing hands, wearing a face mask, and social distancing.
Governor Northam advised protesters to wear face masks as well as to get tested. Many demonstrators in recent Richmond protests have not abided by Virginia’s social distancing guidance. Northam mentioned that he himself got tested recently, which came back negative.
The governor provided further guidance on the reopening of schools and universities. His team said these institutions may only bring students back to campus if COVID-19 cases are on decline -- and if local public health systems have the capacity to address a surge in cases.
“Institutions also of course must follow guidance from the CDC, the Virginia Department of Health and the phases outlined in the Forward Virginia blueprint, including enhanced social and physical distancing, health and hygiene procedures, cleaning and disinfecting measures and other mitigation strategies,” said Peter Blake, Director of the State Council of Higher Education.
Universities must report their plans for reopening their campuses to the State Council of Higher Education by July 6.
Secretary of Finance Aubrey Lane provided an update on the economic impact the coronavirus has had on Virginia. Lane said as of May, revenues in the state were $800 million below projections, which was $1 billion. Lane said these numbers were partially due to the strength of Virginia’s economy, as well as other federal actions that have been taken by the Governor.