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At first debate, McAuliffe walks back support for ending qualified immunity for police

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McAuliffe and Youngkin

Democrat Terry McAuliffe (left) and Republican Glenn Youngkin (right) faced off Thursday night in a debate at the Appalachian School of Law.

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe backed away from his support for ending qualified immunity for police Thursday during his first debate with Republican Glenn Youngkin, reversing a stance he took during the Democratic primary.

McAuliffe’s campaign previously said he supported ending qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that can shield police officers from civil rights lawsuits unless a plaintiff can prove egregious misconduct.

Ending or reforming qualified immunity became a rallying cry for criminal-justice reform advocates following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nationwide racial justice protests that followed. Proponents say the change would make it easier for people harmed by police to seek legal remedies and discourage police officers from using excessive force.

McAuliffe signaled his support for the idea in April after his four primary opponents, three of whom were Black, had already done so.

But McAuliffe took a different stance on the debate stage with Youngkin, saying qualified immunity was a necessary protection for law enforcement personnel asked to do a difficult job.

“No I would not end it,” McAuliffe said in response to a moderator’s question at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy. “It’s called qualified immunity for a reason. Any officer who is acting in good faith should and will have the full protections of the Commonwealth of Virginia. We don’t want anyone going out there putting their lives at risk and us not having their back. But if you have a law enforcement officer who breaks the law, that’s what qualified immunity is. That’s why we call it qualified immunity. But I will always step up and protect law enforcement. Because they’re out there every day protecting us.”

McAuliffe built a mostly pro-police record when he served as governor from 2014 to 2018, a record that occasionally drew criticism from his primary competitors. In the general election, McAuliffe is again touting that record to fend off Youngkin’s accusations that the former governor is no friend to law enforcement.

“What my opponent has done is completely recanted on what he said when he was trying to get the nomination, which is he would in fact reform or remove qualified immunity,” Youngkin said at the debate after hearing McAuliffe’s answer. “This is why the law enforcement community doesn’t trust him.”

The debate exchange came a day after a combative exchange with a Republican local sheriff who asked McAuliffe about accepting the endorsement from a group the lawman said supported defunding the police, WDBJ reported.

“Well, I don’t care what you believe,” McAuliffe shot back, just after saying he supported keeping qualified immunity intact. “I’ve got a track record. And I’m proud of that track record and I funded the police. I’ve never been for defund the police, so don’t bring your political rhetoric in here to me. I’ve got a record. I deal in facts!”

McAuliffe’s earlier position on qualified immunity came amid widespread outrage over a viral traffic stop in the small town of Windsor, where Black and Latino Army Lt. Caron Nazario was dragged from his car and pepper sprayed after being pulled over for what officers believed was a missing license plate. Nazario’s vehicle had a temporary plate displayed in the rear window.

Democrats have made multiple attempts to end or reform qualified immunity in Virginia, but the proposals have failed to clear the General Assembly.

Though the Democratic-led legislature has approved several policing reform initiatives, few legislators have embraced activist calls to defund the police. In fact, Democrats have recently voted to increase funding and approve bonuses for some law enforcement agencies. Nevertheless, Virginia Republicans have signaled they plan to re-up “defund” attacks in this year’s elections to paint Democrats as anti-law-enforcement.

At the debate, McAuliffe said Youngkin’s plans to reduce taxes would lead to severe funding cutbacks, including for law enforcement.

“If you look at his economic plan… it will defund the police,” McAuliffe said.

Youngkin said he too opposes ending qualified immunity.

“Qualified immunity protects law enforcement heroes from frivolous civil lawsuits. Not when there’s dereliction of duty,” Youngkin said. “And I haven’t met a single law enforcement hero who does not want to root out bad police.”

The two candidates also sparred over vaccine mandates, abortion, schools and the economy during the hourlong debate.

Princess Blanding, a police reform activist who is on the ballot as a third-party gubernatorial candidate, was not invited to participate in the debate.

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