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Could bipartisan police reform actually be on the horizon?
That’s the goal of Republican Senator Tim Scott, who will introduce a plan partially rolling back the civil liability shield police officers currently enjoy, known as “qualified immunity.”
“Sen. Tim Scott (R–S.C.) has reportedly proposed a compromise to rein in qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that makes it difficult for victims to sue government officials when their constitutional rights have been violated,” Reason’s Billy Binion reports. “Scott, who has served as the Republican leader on police reform talks, is suggesting that the doctrine be pulled back for law enforcement and that liability shift from individual cops to the departments that employ them.”
At the very least, this is a step in the right direction. (Fully abolishing qualified immunity almost certainly couldn’t pass in this Congress). The status quo’s robust immunity routinely protects abusive officers from civil accountability for their actions.
“Legislated into existence by the Supreme Court, qualified immunity currently requires that any misconduct alleged against state actors be outlined almost exactly in a previous court precedent should the victim want the right to bring his suit before a jury,” Binion explains. “Such a thing often doesn't exist.”
The result? Many police officers and other government officials have escaped civil liability in obviously abusive cases simply because there was no exactly similar precedent.
Consider the example of Larry Hope, a former Alabama inmate who was chained to a hitching post in the sun with no bathroom breaks while guards taunted him about his thirst. Hope was unable to sue the prison officials who tormented him in civil court because under qualified immunity, there was no identical case establishing this clear abuse of power as an infringement of his rights.
Here’s a list from USA Today of outrageous examples where qualified immunity has recently shielded reckless government officials from accountability:
- Officers who stole $225,000.
- A cop who shot a 10-year-old while trying to shoot a nonthreatening family dog.
- Prison officials who locked an inmate in a sewage-flooded cell for days.
- SWAT team members who fired gas grenades into an innocent woman’s empty home.
- Medical board officials who rifled through a doctor’s client files without a warrant.
- County officials who held a 14-year-old in pretrial solitary confinement for over a month.
- A cop who body-slammed a 5-foot-tall woman for walking away from him.
- Police who picked up a mentally infirmed man, drove him to the county line and dropped him off at dusk along the highway, where he was later struck and killed by a motorist.
It’s not “anti-police” to believe that no government official, police officers included, should be able to violate citizens’ rights with civil impunity. Indeed, a majority of police officers surveyed actually support reforming qualified immunity. So, Senator Scott’s proposed reform is an unobjectionable yet much-needed step in the right direction.
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