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Lawmakers Split on Proposal to Allow Citizens to Sue Police For Misconduct

Police gather outside Richmond Police Department headquarters.
Officers gather outside Richmond Police headquarters during a protest in July.  (Photo: Coleman Jennings/VPM News)

As lawmakers finalize criminal justice reform proposals for the upcoming special session, Virginia Democrats appear divided over whether the Commonwealth should do away with qualified immunity. The protection bars the public from suing law enforcement officers for alleged misconduct when their actions fall short of criminal prosecution. 

Lawmakers in the House of Delegates are finalizing legislation to end the protections, fulfilling one of about 30 criminal justice proposals the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus would like to address during the August 18 Special Session of the General Assembly. 

“This is one of those things that has to be changed if we’re really talking about reform and we’re really talking about fairness,” said Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond), who will carry the legislation. 

But on Thursday, Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said the Senate will not take up the issue.

“That’s a pretty complicated issue and that’s not in our proposal and we’re not going to be making one,” he said in a press conference. 

Lawmakers on the Joint House Committee of Courts of Justice and Public Safety heard from criminal justice and law enforcement experts on Thursday who said ending qualified immunity would push law enforcement agencies to do a better job of training, hiring good officers and letting go of bad ones. 

“This all of a sudden takes a market-driven approach to this problem,” said Dr. Rashawn Ray, a University of Maryland sociology professor and Brookings Institution fellow. “And what it would do is say Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis, you’ve cost us X millions of dollars over the last decade. We can no longer afford to keep you here.” Chauvin, the police officer charged with killing George Floyd during an arrest, had an extensive history of misconduct reports during his 19 years in the Minneapolis Police Department.

But opponents of the proposal say eliminating the protection would make it difficult for officers to act in situations that require split-second decisions. 

“This would open the door for countless frivolous lawsuits, and would definitely become yet another impediment to hiring qualified men and women,” said Wayne Huggins, Executive Director of the Virginia State Police Association. 

The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police also opposes the proposal. But Executive Director Dana Schrad confirmed that local police agencies have liability insurance through the Virginia Risk Sharing Association in the event of a lawsuit. 

Del. Mike Mullin (D-Newport News), who is a city prosecutor, said in an interview on Thursday that compensation in civil lawsuits might be the only recourse for victims of police misconduct. 

“You’d still have to prove that someone acted illegally,” he said. “You’d still have to prove that someone’s rights were violated, that they were harmed physically or financially in some way.”

Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn and her fellow Democratic delegates plan to release their criminal justice plan for the session next week.

*CORRECTION: We misspelled Mike Mullin. It has been corrected.