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Virginia Democrats Fund Police -- But Not Fast Enough, Says GOP

people standing
Two Virginia Capitol Police Officers stand on the steps of the state Capitol. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Democrats in Virginia have called for setting aside some of the more than $4 billion in federal stimulus funds to give bonuses to law enforcement officers. Republicans are pressing them to move faster and go farther, citing an urgent need to raise morale in departments across the state. Some progressive groups, meanwhile, say the raises shouldn’t happen at all.

Advocates for law enforcement agencies say they urgently need better pay.

Virginia State Police have over 334 vacancies out of 2,164 and a pay scale that starts at around $48,000 for new officers. The Virginia Beach police department is attempting to plug roughly 100 vacancies with $5,000 bonuses; neighboring Chesapeake is set to follow suit. The state’s jails have nearly 700 vacant positions, according to a March presentation from the Virginia Sheriff’s Association that drew from state data. 

The budget drafted by top Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Ralph Northam offers immediate bonuses of up to $5,000 for state police alongside "compression bonuses" between two and eight percent of salaries, as well as $1,000 for state-funded sheriff officers and workers at regional jails. It also includes $20 million in compensation increases for VSP officers that would go into effect after a planned salary study due October 15.

That study would also include a plan for raises for correctional officers within the Department of Corrections, deputy sheriffs, and regional jail officers. Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax County) urged her colleagues to wait for those results and to not spend one-time federal funds on permanent, ongoing funding for salaries for those groups.

“We will be able, in a much better way, to deal with this if we just delay till we have the results of the study,” she said.

Republicans argued the bumps couldn’t wait.

“I'm so glad that we're in agreement that we are not going to defund our police,” said Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico). “But it is my suggestion that you can do that passively, by absolutely not supporting them and creating a hostile environment for them to work in.”

Some activists questioned why lawmakers were increasing pay to law enforcement at all.

“We cannot reward police officers for killing innocent Black people in our streets,” the group Progress Virginia said in a pre-session email on Monday. “We have so much work to do to reform our police system, and giving bonuses is not the way to do that.”

“Instead of releasing the countless folks that are locked up pretrial - at risk of COVID - our state is tryna give more money to department of corrections!!!!” Tweeted Richmond-area activist Kalia Harris, co-director of the Virginia Student Power Network

There’s little sign those arguments have gained traction among Democratic lawmakers. Democrats are defending a five-seat majority in the House of Delegates this November. The party is also trying to maintain its hold on the governor’s mansion and other statewide offices in the face of GOP attacks accusing the party of being soft on crime.

Instead, there’s some disagreement among Democrats over the size and scope of the American Rescue Plan funded bonuses. In a vote Wednesday, a handful of Senate Democrats voted with Republicans to increase sheriff deputy bonuses to $5,000 this year, with separate, locally-matched bonuses the next two budget years. The chamber later rejected a proposed bonus to local police officers.

On Tuesday, Democrats in the House swiftly rejected a broader GOP stimulus spending plan that included a one-time $5,000 bonus for those groups. The two chambers will have to resolve their differences to pass the budget.

Local governments also got a cut of federal stimulus dollars and could use that money to directly fund local police and sheriff departments.

Virginia lawmakers passed a budget in February granting VSP officers an 8% raise and one last year giving law enforcement officers a $500 bonus.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify the timing of the proposed VSP salary increases and to include the results of Senate votes late Wednesday night.