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Congress and States Struggle With Police Immunity Reforms

June 3, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
People hold signs as they listen to a speaker in front of city hall in downtown Kansas City, Mo., during a rally to protest the death of George Floyd who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

WASHINGTON — A bill to modify the immunity from liability for police officers failed in the Louisiana State Legislature Tuesday over a dispute that mirrors similar action in Congress.

The bill would have made officers liable to victims for their excessive use of force.

Evidence during hearings leading up to the failed vote in the Senate included the case of a pregnant Seattle woman who was tased three times and forced to lie on her stomach during a traffic stop. A court agreed the officers acted unreasonably but their qualified immunity from prosecution exonerated them.

Qualified immunity is a legal principle that gives government officials performing their jobs immunity from liability unless they violate what the U.S. Supreme Court called “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

A second case discussed in the Louisiana State Legislature was drawn from bodycam footage that showed 49-year-old Ronald Greene beaten and killed by police during a traffic stop outside of Monroe, La. The state troopers later lied by telling Greene’s family he died after his vehicle hit a tree.

In Congress, the central case motivating qualified immunity reform bills is the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

The qualified immunity doctrine was first set out by the Supreme Court in the 1967 case of Pierson v. Ray, in which the Court sought to protect police responding to violence during the height of the 1960s civil rights movement.

Now some members of Congress who want to change the law say qualified immunity goes too far by protecting police from irresponsible, violent behavior.

The House passed a bill last year named after Floyd that would ban chokeholds, no-knock warrants by federal police, organize a national police misconduct registry and revamp qualified immunity. It stalled in the Senate in what was then a Republican majority.

Now Republicans and Democrats are evenly matched in the Senate with Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris authorized to break a tie with the deciding vote. She also has called for police reform.

The Senate is close to finalizing a version of the bill similar to the one approved by the House.

The Senate’s qualified immunity reform measure is being put together by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. They have set a self-imposed deadline to finish work on the bill this month.

Before they complete work on it, opposition already is shaping up among their Republican colleagues.

Sen. Mitch McConnel, R-Ky., said on Tuesday that any changes to qualified immunity could mean police departments would be unable to get good candidates for their jobs.

“Without qualified immunity, how do you get people to do law enforcement work,” McConnell reportedly told journalists.

His objection to reform echoed concerns from police associations and unions during congressional testimony before the reform bills were introduced. Many of the police said they would quit rather than risk being sued for doing their jobs.

McConnel, the Senate Republican leader, said legislative efforts to remove legal protections for officers explain a recent increase in police retirements. The reform bills are pending in more than two dozen states.

Any changes to the laws on liability necessarily would lead to court action, which so far has waffled between protecting the police or the victims.

The most recent case law came out of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week.

A then 70-year-old man sued security guards who arrested him at a Veterans Administration hospital in El Paso after a verbal altercation with them near a magnetometer. He said his injuries required two surgeries.

The security guards won the lawsuit in a lower court by claiming a qualified immunity. The Supreme Court decided to let the lower court’s ruling stand, thereby declining to set a new standard on immunity for police.

Meanwhile, Derek Chauvin, the police officer convicted of killing Floyd, is scheduled to be sentenced June 25 in Minneapolis on murder and manslaughter charges.

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