Qualified Immunity for Cops a Flash Point in Reform Debate

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Qualified immunity for police officers has emerged as a flashpoint in the protests prompted by George Floyd’s killing. In the vast majority of cases of police brutality, officers are never criminally prosecuted. For families of victims seeking relief through the justice system, qualified immunity presents another obstacle to obtaining financial or other damages. Even in the rare cases where the officers are charged, police can still claim qualified immunity if relatives or victims sue them, the New York Times reports. Activists have seized on qualified immunity as one of the biggest problems with policing and argued that it shields officers from being held accountable for misconduct. Police leaders said it was essential for officers’ ability to respond to calls and to make split-second decisions.

The House Democrats’ police reform bill would allow victims of police brutality to seek damages from their assailants. A competing Senate Republican bill made no mention of qualified immunity, and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called it a “total and complete nonstarter.” The Colorado legislature this month became the first to eliminate qualified immunity. When the Supreme Court declined last week to take up several cases concerning qualified immunity, Justice Clarence Thomas, the lone dissenter, expressed “strong doubts” about the doctrine. David Cole of the American Civil Liberties Union called the doctrine “a free pass” for police officers “to violate constitutional rights without being held to account.” Mapping Police Violence, a group that collects data on police shootings, says that of the 1,147 people killed by the police in 2017, officers were charged with a crime in 13 of the cases, or about 1 percent. In most cases where officers are not charged, victims can win damages only through lawsuits. Qualified immunity can block them from getting relief.

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