Virginia’s Democrat-controlled Senate has approved legislation that lets judges and juries downgrade the charge of an assault on a police officer from a felony to a misdemeanor if the attack did not cause injury or if the perpetrator has “diminished physical or mental capacity or pervasive developmental disorder,” drawing pushback from Republicans, who said the bill undermines the safety of law enforcement officials amid nationwide protests, some of which have turned violent.
Senate Bill 5032, which passed on Wednesday with a 21-15 vote strictly along partisan lines, also eliminates a six-month mandatory minimum sentence for assault causing bodily injury to police officers and other categories of officials performing public duties like firefighters and emergency medical personnel.
Republicans have said the bill makes police and responders more vulnerable at a time when they face attacks during protests.
State Sen. Amanda Chase, a Republican serving Virginia’s 11th District, called the legislation “an attack on our law enforcement,” while State Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover) said: “We’re sending a message to people that riot in our streets . . . that if you encounter a law enforcement officer you don’t need to be concerned because if you assault them it’s not as serious.”
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican, criticized the bill in a tweet: “This is unhinged. The Democrat Virginia Senate has passed a bill that would dramatically reduce penalties for assaulting a police officer. Liberal politicians are endangering police officers and fueling the riots in our streets.”
Democrats, who all voted for the bill, argued that the legislation does not downplay the crime of assaulting police officers and other public servants, but instead seeks to distinguish between serious assaults on police and minor incidents.
“What we’re talking about here are situations that involve much more insignificant minor touches,” said State Sen. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax), who proposed the bill, adding that the law “does not grant anyone the right to assault first responders.”
In Virginia, serious physical assaults on police can still be prosecuted as felonies under the state’s malicious bodily injury to a police officer law. If there was intent to maim, disfigure, disable, or kill, such assaults carry a two-year mandatory minimum sentence and up to 30 years behind bars. If such malicious intent was lacking, but the victim sustained a bodily injury, the perpetrator can be charged with a Class 6 felony, and a conviction will include a mandatory minimum term of one year behind bars.
The bill will now be taken up by the House, where Democrats hold a 55-45 majority.
The legislation in Virginia comes as the death of George Floyd and widespread protests have prompted several states to move quickly to pass significant policing reform proposals.