RICHMOND, Va. – What a difference two years makes. Advocates who fought for criminal justice and police reforms in Virginia after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis are worried that their progress could be rolled back by the new Republican majority in the state’s House of Delegates.
After Floyd's killing sparked months of protests around the country, Virginia's legislature — then controlled by Democrats — passed a sweeping package of reforms, including legislation banning the use of chokeholds and no-knock search warrants; a law that calls for mental health specialists to have a prominent role in responding to people in crisis; and a measure aimed at demilitarizing police departments by prohibiting the acquisition of certain weapons and equipment.
Virginia, a state that had executed more people in its long history than any other, also approved legislation to end capital punishment, a law that seemed to complete a dramatic turnaround on criminal justice reform.
But after taking control of the House in the November election, Republicans are now in a position to potentially overturn some of the reforms. Their proposed rollbacks include bills that would restore the ability of police to get no-knock search warrants, and to stop motorists for minor infractions such as operating without brake lights or driving with defective equipment. Another Republican-sponsored bill would reinstate the death penalty for the killing of law enforcement officers.
Republicans also have proposed repealing a series of more restrictive gun laws passed by Democrats, including a red-flag law that allows guns to be seized if a gun owner is deemed to be a threat to himself or others.
“Virginia made landmark progress and it could all go away. They're trying to undo everything,” said Brad Haywood, a public defender and executive director of Justice Forward Virginia, an advocacy organization that focuses on criminal justice reform.
“To me, it just seems like sour grapes," Haywood said. "They won an election, and it seems to me they just want to undo a civil rights movement.”
Republican leaders, however, say they are trying to correct Democratic reforms that were opposed by police and by many Virginians who later voted Republicans into office.
“We took this case to the voters in 2021, and the results were clear — House Democrats went too far, and Virginians voted accordingly,” said Garren Shipley, a spokesperson for House Speaker Todd Gilbert.
Virginia appears to be the only state where there are widespread attempts to roll back criminal justice and police reforms passed after Floyd's killing, said Amber Widgery, a senior analyst on criminal justice issues at the National Conference of State Legislatures. Widgery said lawmakers in other states have proposed bills to make tweaks to certain reforms, but not the kind of rollbacks proposed in Virginia.
Virginia was the only state in the country in which partisan control of a legislative chamber changed in 2021 elections. In New Jersey, the only other state to hold legislative elections, Democrats maintained control of both legislative chambers.
But with Democrats in Virginia still holding a 21-19 majority in the Senate, some of the Republican-sponsored bills have already been killed in committee.
Senate Democrats have quashed one Republican-sponsored bill that would allow people to carry a concealed handgun without a permit, and another that would repeal a law limiting handgun purchases to one per month. A Senate bill that would have reinstated the death penalty for the killing of law enforcement officers was also killed by Democrats. An identical House bill is still pending.
The narrow Democratic margin in the Senate still has Democrats concerned. It would take just one Democrat voting with Republicans on a particular bill to result in a tie, and that tie would be broken by Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, a Republican.
Herndon police Chief Maggie DeBoard said 2020 laws that limited search warrants to daylight hours and ended the ability of police to stop motor vehicles for minor offenses increased dangers to the public and police.
“What we’re trying to do is repeal bills that were passed in the name of reform that were not in the least bit balanced,” she said.
Racial justice advocates and Democrats who supported the law prohibiting officers from stopping cars for minor infractions say it is aimed at ending "pretextual stops" that disproportionately target Black people and other minorities.
But during a hearing on his bill to repeal the law, Republican Del. Ronnie Campbell listed about a dozen murder suspects who were caught by police after they were stopped for minor violations, including serial killer Ted Bundy and Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
“I think it's very important that we bring these (violations) back as a primary offense for our law enforcement, who tell me that for the last year and a half, their hands have pretty much been tied," Campbell said.
Police also support a bill sponsored by Republican Del. Rob Bell that would repeal the ban on no-knock warrants passed after Breonna Taylor, a Black woman, was fatally shot by police in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2020. Bell's bill would allow police to use a no-knock warrant if they can make a good-cause showing to a judge based on the circumstances of the case. His bill would also require that at least one uniformed officer be visible and audible before the search warrant is executed. It would also extend the hours for search warrants to be served from the current 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“The quicker and more safely we can get inside that door, the less chance there is going to be confrontation inside that house,” DeBoard said.
House Minority Leader Eileen Filler-Corn, who served as House Speaker while the Democratic reforms were passed in 2020 and 2021, said the new laws were aimed at "addressing inequities that Black and brown communities have endured for generations.”
"We are not going to allow any of this to be rolled back at the expense of Virginians and their safety and the progress we've made removing inequities in the criminal justice system,” she said.
Associated Press writer Sarah Rankin contributed to this report.