RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday called President Donald Trump’s police reform executive order a “step in the right direction,” but cautioned there’s “a lot” of work left to do to address racial bias in policing and the excessive use of force by some officers.
Speaking during an exclusive interview set to air Wednesday evening on “Nightly News with Lester Holt,” Northam said that “police brutality, the racism that exists here in 2020” underscore the need for reform.
“We really need to reform our police forces,” Northam told NBC News, pointing to ideas like diversifying police, implementing body cameras and educating police officers on de-escalation techniques.
“There’s been an awakening of really what black oppression is. A lot of people that look like me have learned a lot, have listened, have seen the pain that is in this country, that is in Virginia in the last few weeks,” he added.
“People are now standing up and saying enough is enough. And so, this is an opportunity for us to really change the direction and change the course of history not only in Virginia, but in this country.”
Trump signed his executive order on Tuesday after weeks of protests calling for reforms to policing. The measure encourages police departments to ban chokeholds unless officers lives are at risk, creates a national database of excessive fore complaints and calls for mental-health professionals to be more involved in police response.
Virginia is currently wrestling with removing statues honoring Confederate leaders across the state. The state’s capital, Richmond, served as the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and is still home to many commemorations of the Confederacy.
Northam called Confederate statues “symbols of divisiveness,” evoking the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville protesting the removal of a statue honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Now, the state is fighting a court battle over its attempts to remove another statue of Lee, this time in Richmond.
“I said back then: These statues need to come down. They need to be either in museums or cemeteries or somewhere out of the public, where they’re not symbols, where they’re not glorifying the institution of slavery, where they’re not glorifying this divisiveness. And so I have been committed to doing that,” he said.
“It shouldn’t matter the color of your skin, the country that you come from, the religion that you practice or who you love. We want to welcome people to Virginia, and how can we welcome people to our capitol city to Virginia with a lineup of five Confederate generals? In 2020, we can do better than that.”
A neurologist, Northam served in the state senate and as lieutenant governor before being elected governor in 2017. The debate over Virginia’s Confederate statues played a big role in that campaign, particularly after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that summer where a counter-protestor was killed.
In 2019, Northam’s medical school yearbook picture was discovered, showing one man in blackface and another in what appeared to be a Ku Klux Klan-style robe on Northam’s page. The governor initially apologized “for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” and bucked calls to resign.
He subsequently denied being in the picture upon further review, and an investigation by Eastern Virginia Medical School “could not conclusively determine” whether one of the two men pictured was Northam. But he did admit to appearing in blackface — darkening his face with shoe polish — while impersonating Michael Jackson at a dance competition.
Northam repeated those denials Wednesday, arguing that the issue was bigger than him and that he’s since committed himself to addressing racial inequality issues in office.
“We’ve had two very thorough investigations, and those investigations showed no evidence of me being in the picture,” he said.
“This isn’t about me anymore. This is really about Virginia, it’s about this country, it’s about black oppression, it’s about systemic racism and that’s really what I would like people to focus on moving forward.”