Senate Democrats top House GOP in rush to boost police funding

By: - February 28, 2022 12:03 am

Virginia State Police troopers stand outside the Capitol during the hectic final days of the 2019 General Assembly session. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Police agencies in Virginia are set to get big budget increases under spending plans advanced by the House and Senate — money law enforcement leaders say they badly need to raise salaries for frontline officers.

But who will benefit from the funding boosts depends on what kind of compromise lawmakers from the two chambers reach as they begin budget negotiations.

Senate Democrats proposed nearly $100 million more than the House for law enforcement salaries, according to an analysis by The Commonwealth Institute, which analyzes the state budget. The biggest difference is Senate lawmakers included $47 million in new funding for local police departments — a line item the House GOP cut from former Gov. Ralph Northam’s initial budget proposal.

The fact that Democrats — who the GOP accused of seeking to defund police in campaign ads last year — are pushing for more police funding than Republicans is not lost on Senate leaders.

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who chairs the Senate’s subcommittee on public safety spending, said Republicans’ aren’t living up to their campaign rhetoric. “They’re saying one thing but doing another,” Lucas said. “They’re saying we need more police officers, but they don’t put the money in there to make it happen. That’s the disconnect, as far as I’m concerned.”

The increase is also at odds with the activist wing of the Democratic party, from which calls to “defund the police” initially emerged from the nationwide protest movement that emerged in the summer of 2020. In response, Democrats pursued an array of reform measures, but have pointedly avoided cutting budgets.

“If you look at my city, Portsmouth, where there’s a high crime rate and shootings on an almost daily basis, I realize we need to beef up our police departments to kind of get a handle on that gang violence,” Lucas said. “And we can’t do that if we’re cutting police departments.”

Republicans in the House say they’ll continue to negotiate, but said they did what they could for police while balancing a range of other priorities — namely tax cuts and rebates. “I think that might be something we can visit at some point, but this year we were focused in different areas,” said Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt.

The Senate also proposed $5 million more than the House for the Capitol Police and $43 million more to increase correctional and probation officer salaries.

In the Department of Corrections, the funding provided by the House would mean a $42,000 starting salary versus $44,000 proposed by the Senate. The department’s current starting salary is $35,000, a figure corrections officials have told lawmakers is insufficient to attract qualified candidates. At last report, the agency was short 1,500 officers.

The House and Senate ended up on the same page when it came to state police, sheriffs and local jail salaries, sticking with Northam’s initial budget proposal, which included $48.4 million for state police and $89.5 million for sheriffs.

State Police Superintendent Gary Settle had warned lawmakers that the agency has been struggling to attract qualified candidates with its roughly $48,000 starting salary. “This remains a critical need of the agency,” he told a Senate budget committee earlier in the session, citing 345 vacancies and a half-full class of trainees in the pipeline. “It is our utmost, highest priority.”

He also requested additional money from lawmakers so the agency could begin offering a pay bump to troopers with college degrees . He said about half of the agency’s sworn officers currently have an associates degree or higher, a number he said has been steadily dropping as the agency’s pay has stagnated. “We know that highly educated trooper trainees that come into the academy make better decisions. … less use of force there’s research on this — we know that,” he said.

Neither chamber funded request, although lawmakers said they agreed it sounded like a good idea. “I think that is something that we need to continue to work on,” Lucas said.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.