(The Center Square) – In response to legislative Democrats enacting a series of police reforms, three Southwest Virginia sheriffs elected as Democrats have changed their party to become Republicans.
Sheriff Chip Shuler of Smyth County, who was elected as a Democrat in 2015, was the most recent addition to the Republican Party. In a news release, Shuler said law enforcement has faced relentless attacks from Democrats in Washington and Richmond.
In 2015, Shuler was elected with slightly more than 59% of the vote and was re-elected in 2019 with slightly more than 60% of the vote. Smyth County is a mostly Republican district in which more than three-fourths of votes backed former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
The Democratic Party gained slim majorities in the General Assembly in 2019, after which they passed a long list of criminal justice and policing reforms. This included some bipartisan bills that expanded training, but also heavily partisan bills, which limited police authority. Some of the more controversial bills banned no-knock warrants, limited the offenses for which an officer can stop a person while driving, limited the types of weapons and equipment police could use and established a process by which a department could be partially defunded if the state deems that they have engaged in biased policing.
Virginia legislative Democrats also passed several criminal justice reform bills, which included an automatic expungement of records for certain crimes.
Some Democratic lawmakers sought to end qualified immunity for police, which protects police against certain lawsuits. That legislation narrowly passed the House, but was killed by Republicans and moderate Democrats in the Senate. However, it still remains a priority for some legislative Democrats.
Under current law, an officer is protected against lawsuits unless he violated a clearly established right that any person would be aware of. The proposed change by some Democrats would open police up to lawsuits for a deprivation of rights without the need to reach that standard of proof.
The reforms gained support from civil rights groups, but many of them faced fierce opposition from police groups.
"It’s not surprising in the slightest that these law enforcement professionals would change parties,” House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, told The Center Square. “Virginia Democrats have made it clear that they stand with criminals, not law enforcement and victims. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to defend that agenda while still promising to serve and protect local residents.”
A spokesperson for the Senate Democrats declined to comment because they do not comment on local elections as a general rule. The Democratic Party of Virginia and the House Democrats did not respond to a request for comment from The Center Square.
Two other sheriffs have switched to the Republican Party since Democrats passed those reforms: Sheriff John McClanahan from Buchanan County and Sheriff Brian Hieatt from Tazewell County.
Republicans at the state and local level have made law enforcement issues, particularly protecting qualified immunity, a major campaign priority as many Democrats have continued to run on criminal justice reform issues. Republican Gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin has run on his “Law Enforcement for Glenn” coalition in which eight county and city sheriffs endorsed him in the party’s primary.
Virginia’s gubernatorial at state house races will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 2. Many municipal races will also be held.