Policing the Police

Rethinking “Qualified Immunity” 

The police in our daily lives are given power and privileges to protect us and themselves at the same time. None of those privileges is more problematic than “qualified immunity” — the idea that police officers cannot, in many cases, be held civilly liable for their official acts.  

Presidents and other elected officials enjoy similar protections from their own excesses, which is why whether Trump is guilty of inciting a resurrection on January 6 hinges largely on whether his speech in advance of the storming of the Capitol is considered an “official” event. 

In recent years, our police have made far too many serious mistakes in performing their duties, particularly when dealing with people of color.  

The deaths of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Tamir Rice and many, many others each sparked headlines and protests but, before the excruciating death of Mr. Floyd, brought little in the way of justice. The difficulty of assessing in-the-moment decisions, a culture of silence within police forces, and, yes, systemic racism all combined to ensure virtual immunity for even the most egregious acts.   

One of the key elements in assessing those situations is what the relevant facts have been and whether the police overstepped their authority. 

Because both their power and actions are not in the realm of normal behavior the police do run a continuous risk of overstepping their roles and therefore the laws governing their behavior include a qualified immunity from prosecution for going too far, except in cases where an officer violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights.”  

That is a gray area the size of Alaska and Texas! Thus, the key question today is what qualified immunity truly entails and means. 

“Immunity” is what it says – if a mistake is made and proven, immunity can protect the police officer from civil liability from a victim and/or their family. 

“Qualified” adds the murky limits of the 1967 Supreme Court decision establishing the doctrine to the mix.  

How, when and by whom is that judgment made? If the qualification is too liberal the police can literally get away with murder. If it is too strict, police officers’ hands might be tied to the detriment of their personal as well as public safety.  

Real life – particularly in situations blending guns and conflict — happens quickly, and no thoughtful person can think it easy to make life-or-death decisions in the blink of an eye. 

As the Congress discusses ways to address the array of problems these questions pose, a central focus is what to do about qualified immunity.  

Some want it eliminated – an option both unlikely and problematic. But strengthening or narrowing the standard is also challenging. If there is clear, concise, readily understandable language that could do the job, we would already know it and I am not aware of one. 

Perhaps a solution lies elsewhere. Instead of a “qualified immunity” based on the explicated “rights” of victims of police violence, there could be established a system of “exceptional immunity” based on whether a police officer’s actions after the fact were consistent with and in proportion to the facts of the situation. 

Such judgement might come from a state board of impartial reviewers representing police, community groups, and retired judges. Such a body could develop clear “use of force” standards, require de-escalation in situations related more to an individual’s mental health than a non-violent crime, and otherwise provide reasoned guidance.  

This does resemble qualified immunity in some ways, BUT it would also allow many more civil actions against unjustified acts of violence by the police, while still preserving their protection for actions reasonably undertaken in the moment. 

Exceptional immunity (or any other such “carve out”) will not solve the problem of police violence against communities of color – THAT will require strengthening the criminal laws for excessive use of force. But it will bring us one step closer to justice.  

Isn’t that everyone’s wish and intention?! 

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