A protester kicks in the window of a Wells Fargo branch in downtown Richmond on in May. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
By Ada Romano/ Capital News Service
A General Assembly bill is likely dead for the session that would have held localities accountable for damages caused by protesters if an adequate police response was not provided.
Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, said he proposed House Bill 5026 to assure localities provide proper police protection during protests in an effort to minimize damages to personal property and businesses. The bill was referred to the House Courts of Justice committee in August but has not been addressed, and probably won’t be according to its sponsor.
Protests have erupted around the state and nation since May, with demonstrators calling for social justice and police reform after George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis. The protests touched off again last week after a grand jury indicted on wanton endangerment charges one out of three officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor, a Kentucky woman who died after police serving a warrant opened fire in her apartment after being shot at by a man inside.
Cole submitted the bill in response to what he said was Virginia local government officials ordering police to stand down and not break up unlawful protests that included rioting and looting.
“It should be obvious now, that you cannot count on Democrats to keep you safe,” Cole said. “When violent protests hit, they order the police to back off and let rioters run wild.”
Buildings and vehicles were burned in Richmond in the initial days of protests following Floyd’s death, including a public transit bus. There was widespread property damage throughout the city which included graffiti, broken windows and stolen property.
The Richmond Police Department instituted an 8 p.m. curfew a few days later and the Virginia State Police department, along with other local counties, began providing additional support.
The Richmond Fire Department recently estimated that the city saw nearly $4 million in fire damage in the first 18 days of protests, according to a report by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Police spent more than $1.6 million on overtime pay during the first month of protests in Richmond, according to a report by Richmond BizSense.
Protests have included calls from demonstrators to defund the police. Cole said defunding police would make communities less safe, and early police intervention could prevent situations from turning violent.
“People pay taxes for police protection, so if local elected officials withhold that protection, they should be held liable for the results of their actions,” Cole said.
Steve Neal, an author and retired Chesterfield County police captain, said the bill contradicts a 2005 Supreme Court ruling stating police have “no duty” to protect civilians from harm from another person.
Neal said the language in the bill is too vague to enforce and said he felt an obligation to protect citizens since becoming a law enforcement officer.
“Every police officer I’ve ever known, including myself, would risk their lives trying to protect other people. That’s what we do on a daily basis,” Neal said. “The police are actually doing that even though the law says we don’t exactly have that duty.”
The staff of the Commission on Local Government analyzed the bill’s fiscal impact and collected responses from several localities. The Commission wrote that a majority of localities said the bill would likely raise insurance premiums and legal fees because it could increase litigation.
A Virginia Beach representative questioned what evidence would have to be submitted or found to prove a locality “intentionally” or “negligently” provided an inadequate police response.
A Wise County representative stated: “What is adequate in my mind may not be adequate in the minds of others.”
A representative from the town of Marion stated: “This could open Pandora’s Box for localities already suffering from reduced police staffing and increased incidents of civil unrest.”
Activist Jessica Moore has been at the forefront of Richmond protests. She said she became more involved in the movement after learning about the lack of protection against COVID-19 in the Richmond City Justice Center, where her friend is incarcerated.
“It’s become a lot more passionate for me just because no one else is listening. Our mayor is not listening, our governor is not listening,” Moore said. “We’re going to take matters into our own hands.”
Moore, along with thousands who protested in Richmond over the past five months, advocates defunding the Richmond Police Department. She said it’s essential to reallocate tax dollars to schools and other community services.
“If they’re going to continue to fund the police, then the funds need to be spread out into programs to teach them to work with people with mental illnesses and other training to help them be more sensitive to certain situations,” Moore said.
Moore believes less response is needed, not more, as Cole’s bill proposes. Moore said the police are provided tear gas and other weapons, which are unnecessary.
Legislators advanced several bills regarding criminal justice reform during the General Assembly special session, which kicked off in August to tackle criminal justice reform, the budget and other issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cole said that he has not decided if he will introduce the same bill in the next session.
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