Police treatment of Black Army officer revives calls to end qualified immunity

Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Police reform is back in focus as two Virginia officers are being accused of using excessive force on a Black, U.S. Army second lieutenant during a traffic stop in the Town of Windsor.

The incident in question occurred last December but the recent circulation of body camera footage has reinvigorated calls to end qualified immunity for law enforcement.

Supporters argue the legal standard makes it too difficult to successfully sue police for violating a person’s civil rights. Opponents say the protection is essential in a job that requires split-second decisions and eliminating it will lead to frivolous lawsuits that will make it impossible to retain good officers.

The renewed debate comes as 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario–the man who was held at gun point, pepper-sprayed and handcuffed by Windsor police while in uniform–is seeking $1 million in damages in a federal lawsuit alleging officers violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights.

On Sunday night, Windsor officials said an internal police investigation showed department policy was not followed during the traffic stop. One of the two officers involved has already been terminated.

Gov. Ralph Northam is directing the Virginia State Police to conduct an independent investigation into what transpired.

However, in a statement on Monday, Northam’s office didn’t directly respond when asked if he supports the push to end qualified immunity and if he would consider calling a special session focused on the issue, as the Virginia NAACP is demanding.

Governor Northam is committed to comprehensive police reform. The Commonwealth has made tremendous progress over the last two years—banning no knock warrants, curbing pretextual stops, mandating crisis intervention training for police, limiting the use of choke holds, establishing civilian review boards—but there is more to do to ensure all Virginians are treated safely, and with basic respect, in interactions with police.

Alena Yarmosky, Gov. Ralph Northam’s Spokesperson

“The time for statements is over. The time for action is now. Governor Northam needs to call a special session to finally end qualified immunity in this commonwealth,” said Virginia NAACP Executive Director Da’Quan Love in an interview with 8News. “No legislator can say that they are allies in this movement while keeping this Jim Crow era law on the books.”

Facing fierce push back from law enforcement groups, the Virginia General Assembly has rejected several bills to end qualified immunity since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis brought the issue to the forefront last year.

Bill sponsor Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond) fears the legislature’s failure to take action could hinder Nazario’s efforts to seek justice.

“I hope that is not the case but we have seen time and time again that this is an extremely high hurdle to get over,” Bourne said.

“What it does is it cuts off the case long before lots of the facts of the case can be heard by the judge or the jury,” he continued. “Ending qualified immunity would give litigants an opportunity to present their case on its merits and not have it dismissed simply because of a legal doctrine that has its roots in a very racist time in our history.”

After Bourne’s bill died in the 2021 session, lawmakers agreed to send it to the Virginia Crime Commission for further study. Supporters hoped this process would win over some skeptical Democratic state senators, who generally feared previous efforts were too broad and would come with unintended consequences.

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), who serves as the chair of the Virginia Crime Commission, said that work has yet to begin and it may be a while before the policy is meaningfully considered.

Herring, who supported previous efforts to eliminate qualified immunity, said the commission’s executive committee has already prioritized several topics for 2021. That means, unless members agree to delay that work, the earliest qualified immunity could be thoroughly studied is 2022, according to Herring.

With that timeline in mind, Herring said Congress may be able to act more quickly and comprehensively to achieve reform in this area.

“In my mind, that’s the best way to deal with police reform so that we don’t have different standards in different states,” Herring said.

Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” for the second time.  Among its many provisions is language to eliminate qualified immunity for all local, state, and federal law enforcement officers.

U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) expressed support for the bill during a virtual press conference on Monday after he was asked about the traffic stop in Windsor.

“I was outraged,” Warner said. “I think it’s time that we pass the Justice in Policing Act, which will not only provide additional training for law enforcement officers, it will prohibit some of the most egregious tactics like choke holds like no knock warrants.”

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who represents Virginia’s 7th Congressional District, has voted in favor of the bill twice. She said she supports efforts to reform qualified immunity but winning over the Senate, with its razor thin Democratic majority, remains a challenge.

“Frankly the issue of qualified immunity is one that continues to be a major sticking point. It’s one of the reasons this bill hasn’t moved forward in the United States Senate,” Spanberger said.

Spanberger said those efforts may need to be scaled back to get something to President Joe Biden’s desk, though it’s not yet clear what that may look like.

“I don’t want to just vote on a bill in the House and have it go nowhere,” Spanberger said.

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