Democratic political leaders in Virginia on Tuesday said the guilty verdict against Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd heralds a new standard for police officers in their treatment of Black people but leaves an incomplete effort to extricate racism from the justice system.
Floyd’s death under Chauvin’s knee in Minnesota last May inflamed months of protests in Richmond over police brutality and systemic racism in the criminal justice system — prompting a still-ongoing reckoning among policymakers that has yielded some state reforms.
“The work continues, but it’s also OK to enjoy a well-needed exhale, even if only for a moment,” said Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, reacting to the guilty verdict on Twitter.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus in a collective statement described the road to the guilty verdict as an “incredibly painful and emotional time” that in the end yielded some relief.
“We cannot stop here,” the 23-member caucus said. “While this verdict serves as a step forward in combating systemic racism, the work continues to ensure that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice both for our children and for the generations after them.”
Gov. Ralph Northam said Floyd “should still be alive today, and no courtroom decision can bring him back. But this decision is an important step. It is a step towards accountability for police. It is a step towards justice.”
Republicans in Virginia, who have broadly criticized what they see as anti-police sentiment among Democrats, were comparatively silent after the verdict was read in the late afternoon.
American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic group that says it seeks to hold Republicans accountable, posted video of Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, a candidate for governor, condemning the verdict.
“Friends, today’s verdict makes me sick,” said Chase, speaking to an audience in King William County. “I am so concerned about our law enforcement right now quitting — and you should be, too.”
Long before the guilty verdict against Chauvin, videos and accounts of Floyd’s death moved activists and lawmakers to seek changes to Virginia’s standards and laws related to police conduct.
The measures were widely celebrated by civil rights advocates, but many others argued lawmakers had not gone far enough to reform the role of police in the state or responded to calls from protesters to shift law enforcement funding to social services.
During a 2020 special session of the General Assembly focused on COVID-19 and police reform, lawmakers banned the use of chokeholds by police unless it is “immediately necessary to protect the law-enforcement officer or another person.”
They also banned the use of no-knock search warrants like the one police used the night Breonna Taylor was killed in Louisville, Ky. They also made it easier for the state to ban police officers who commit wrongdoing from serving on the force again.
The legislature expanded the powers of civilian review boards, giving the citizen-led boards power to subpoena testimony and documents, and to issue binding disciplinary actions against law enforcement officers and staff.
Efforts to make civilian review boards mandatory in localities across the state failed.
Also unsuccessful was an effort that would have allowed citizens to sue police officers for monetary damages if they violate people’s civil rights on the job. A policy known as “qualified immunity” currently prevents them from doing so.
Many key Democrats, including those running for governor this fall, have expressed support for doing away with qualified immunity. The verdict comes weeks before Republicans pick their statewide nominees at a May 8 convention and Democrats in a June 8 primary.
One demand from protesters that lawmakers declined was to shift public resources away from law enforcement and toward social services. Since the protests last summer, lawmakers have increased police salaries and increased funding for law enforcement training.
In the months after Floyd’s death, the city of Richmond and the state also dismantled much of their public Confederate iconography, from statues to school names.
Here is a sampling of Virginia Democrats’ statements in reaction to the verdict.
Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th: “This verdict, while frankly a relief that the system worked this time and a moment of acknowledgement that George Floyd’s life was egregiously and heinously snuffed out, is not a solution. We must commit to changing our policing to ensure these kinds of incidents do not happen again, are not continual headlines and that families are not left shocked and grieving when a loved one doesn’t come home.”
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd: “Derek Chauvin was afforded the due process that George Floyd was denied and found guilty by a jury of his peers. This verdict is a start, but it does not absolve Congress and the federal government of our responsibility to reform policing across the country, and it is a reminder of the need for the Senate to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.”
Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, a candidate for attorney general: “This verdict won’t fix the systemic injustices in policing or the sense of impunity too many officers feel when interacting with Black Americans. To keep all of our communities safe and build a justice system that works for everyone, we must have true accountability for police misconduct.”
Attorney General Mark Herring: “This guilty verdict will hopefully be an inflection point that forces us all to recommit to building a society in which Black lives matter and all Americans can live without fearing the police or discrimination.”
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, a candidate for governor: “Watching George Floyd’s murder, I felt the same trauma my parents felt when they heard about Emmett Till. While today’s guilty verdict is a step towards justice, George Floyd should be alive today. His death must remain a clarion call for continuing police and justice reform.”
Former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, a candidate for governor: “Today’s verdict will never bring George Floyd back into the arms of his family and loved ones. We cannot forget that we will never get true, full justice, until we take action to change the system that took Mr. Floyd’s life, and impacted countless other Black Americans, like Lt. Caron Nazario and Donovan Lynch here in Virginia. Too many of us have been hurt and harmed when the cameras have been off or pointed away.”
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, a candidate for governor: "Today, a jury’s verdict delivered a powerful statement of accountability to Derek Chauvin, a long overdue measure of justice to George Floyd and his family and a message of hope to our nation and world. George Floyd should be alive. We all watched as he was brutally murdered with a knee on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds — a cruel reminder of the pervasive racial injustice and police brutality that threaten Black and Brown communities every day."
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a candidate for governor: “George Floyd’s murder shocked our nation, leaving us heartbroken for his family and outraged at the suffering that Black Americans have faced at the hands of a broken criminal justice system for too long. Today’s verdict delivers accountability, but this racist, broken system remains intact. The time to act is now. We need reform before even one more Black or Brown life is taken.”
Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond: “I went into this trial, as did many other Black Americans, expecting the worst. To see a conviction be made was both a shock and a relief. Some small piece of justice has been served here on this day. This movement is about more than one case and more than one police officer.”
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax: “Today, George Floyd’s family received justice. Systemic racism and the toll it takes on our communities of color is still real and there is much work ahead to ensure every American is equal under the law. This verdict continues the long path of healing and progress.”
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.: “George Floyd’s life mattered. Justice has been served.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.:”Today justice is delivered for George Floyd and his family. But one correct verdict does not negate the profound injustice that lingers every day.”