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Qualified Immunity and Police Reform

Photo By Brian Tietz
Brian Tietz/Brian Tietz
Photo By Brian Tietz

Recent incidents of police violence have brought what’s called Qualified Immunity into the public discourse. Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine established by U.S. Supreme Court precedent that grants police officers immunity from civil lawsuits unless the plaintiff shows that the officer violated clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.

It’s not a law, or in the U.S. Constitution, but a legal doctrine applied by judges that protects all government officials — in most cases police officers — from civil prosecution for violating someone’s rights if there isn’t a clearly established precedent for the same conduct the officer was engaged in. Critics say it allows police officers to act with impunity in many cases.

The federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, passed the House in March, would overhaul how qualified immunity works, as well as ban the use of chokeholds, strengthen federal civil rights laws, and create a national database to track officer misconduct. And there is legislation being proposed in a number of states that would modify, or in some cases end, qualified immunity entirely.

We learn more about how qualified immunity plays out in the real world with Dr. David Thomas, Professor of Forensic Studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, Senior Research Fellow at the National Police Foundation, and a former law enforcement officer.