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Is qualified immunity a problem?

American history and police brutality share a racist parallel. The first police officers were called “slave patrols” and were rebranded after slavery ended in the north.


Racism in policing

American history and police brutality share a racist parallel. The first police officers were called “slave patrols” and were rebranded after slavery ended in the north.

The connection is still apparent in some modern-day police force activities as many cops do not face consequences for their racist actions.

“There’s not enough understanding in the Black community as to what ‘qualified immunity’ is. It doesn’t shield police officers from civil lawsuits.” Angela Powell said as she explained the importance of knowing the difference between immunity and qualified immunity. “When you sue a police officer, qualified immunity is a defense the prosecutor has to make so the terms of his actions can be subject to the law.”

Powell is an attorney at law, a member of the California State Bar and admitted to the Bar of the United States District Courts in the Central and Eastern Districts of California and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. She shared that if an officer uses deadly force that goes against the law, they will not be protected.

Qualified immunity applies only to government officials in civil litigation. It is a legal principle that grants those officials performing discretionary functions immunity from civil suits unless the plaintiff shows that the official violated "clearly established statutory or constitutional rights."

American civil rights activist and lawyer Constance L. Rice was also on the interview call and argued that qualified immunity is a policy that the Supreme Court has to fix.

“The Supreme Court has messed up the use of qualified immunity, and it shows with the George Floyd case that Derek Chauvin would have gotten qualified immunity if the family didn’t settle,”  Rice said, “Even if you got qualified immunity changed, so it didn’t shield the most egregious cases, it would take care of only 3% of the problems we see.”

Rice, who is also the co-founder and co-director of the Advancement Project in Los Angeles, stated the problem goes far beyond qualified immunity or de-escalation training because it’s a system that needs changing.

Hydee Feldstein Soto, Los Angeles City Attorney, also pointed out that police officers are protected differently at every level of the system.

“When I think about what protects an officer, I separate it into two things, what protects his assets, which is qualified immunity at the federal level, and the protection under our state law and city charter, which not many people talk about,”  Soto said as she explained why officers are protected and lack accountability for their actions.

“Many people may or may not know the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEBOR), which is a state law that sets protection against employment consequences if the officers miss behaviors there are a lot of constraints to dealing with the officer,” Soto said, noting that California, even though is a blue state, was the first to enact this Bill of Rights and is one of only 15 states to still enact it.

“If we are going to fix it we need to fix our state law and reform our city charter. This is the starting point to changing the system that many city and state leaders need to act on.” Soto said.  

This article is a part of a series of articles for Our Weekly's #StopTheHate campaign and is supported in whole or part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library. #NoPlaceForHateCA,

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