the unintended consequence of ending qualified immunity

By March 12, 2021No Comments
If you haven’t heard the term “qualified immunity” in regards to law enforcement, then you probably will soon. This week the house passed a bill that among other police reforms, would eliminate qualified immunity for police officers. For a lot of people, the bill on the surface might sound like something you’d want to support – of course holding police accountable for their actions is important. Chances are you, and myself included, would want to consider any ideas for police reform that could potentially make us better as a society. But the problem with this bill is that its repercussions are dangerous and its intentions (which I’m assuming are to hold bad cops accountable) are missing the mark. The consequences aren’t just dangerous for police families like mine, but for you too. The idea of qualified immunity, and why the supreme court decided that it was necessary for law enforcement, isn’t just an easy cut and dry answer. And a bill that will have a profound impact on you and everyone else in our community, deserves to be understood correctly – by citizens, and especially by those representing us in congress.
In short form, the legislation of qualified immunity protects police officers from being held personally liable for lawsuits against them for actions taken while performing their job. Now that you have the general description, more importantly, here’s what it’s NOT: Qualified immunity does not provide protection for police officers who violate the law or for those who act outside of their agency policies and procedures. This last sentence is what seems to be getting overlooked or buried among the feelings of those wanting to push this legislation through. Qualified immunity is not a protection for “bad” police officers, but instead it has everything to do with protecting good police officers who are acting in good faith, while making split second decisions in their duty of upholding the laws that their state has asked them to.
Why does any of this matter to you? Well, it’s not a secret that ending qualified immunity will be the tipping point that will drive out so many of the “good” police officers that we all claim to want in our communities. They will be faced with an impossible decision. Is it worth it to protect and serve a community while putting their family’s entire livelihood on the line? Is it worth it knowing that they can now be exposed to lawsuits from anyone wanting to “make them pay” even when they were justifiably doing their job within the law? Of course police officers need to be held to a higher standard, but can you imagine applying this same logic to other professions too? Should judges be personally liable if they make the decision to release a criminal who then goes on to hurt someone else? Should they stand the risk of being personally sued by anyone who didn’t agree with the outcome of their sentencing? Should we make politicians personally responsible for the impact of their legislation too? My point is that this tells law enforcement that it doesn’t matter if they do their job correctly or not, they can still be punished. And if a police officer acted in good faith, within the law, and within the department’s policy, then what would be gained from monetarily punishing that officer, or opening them up to personal lawsuits? It’s a question that I wish I could pose to every single congressperson voting.
The bottom line is this – if we can’t figure out how to separate feelings from facts, we just might get something we never intended.
And in this case, it’s going to be communities who are hard pressed to find any good cops to work in them. I get that it’s hard to call out the bad in a quest for achieving something that’s good. But bad legislation doesn’t become a good idea just because it was brought up in the midst of trying to make a positive change.