Throughout history, qualified immunity has been used as a means of excusing police brutality. We must dismantle this law, not enforce it.
Qualified immunity has a long history of perpetuating racism within the justice system, and now the Iowa government is adding fuel to the problem.
Governor Kim Reynolds enacted the “Back the Blue” bill on June 17th. The law project increases the penalties for protests, it also increases the qualified immunity of the police.
While Reynolds and supporters of this bill see it as necessary protection, it is just another detrimental way for the Iowa government to defend racism within the justice system.
Qualified immunity has a tumultuous history in our country, rooted in racism. The concept and the language that surrounds it qualified immunity emerged during the civil rights movement.
As a result of racism within the transit system, 15 priests were arrested while demonstrating in Jackson, Mississippi. The priests took legal action because they believed their arrests were aimed at enforcing segregation instead of officers’ arguments that it was about preventing violence /
In his ruling, Chief Justice Earl Warren coined the language we use today, saying the police have no right to “Absolute immunity without reservation” – which means that there would be complete immunity from criminal charges. However, officers are not held accountable if they acted in “good faith”, meaning that judges today must grant immunity if there is no clear precedent that the actions of the officer were irrelevant.
This bill is even more troubling when you consider the increased force used by the Iowa police. With ongoing civil rights initiatives and increased cases of police brutality, there has been an increase in the number of suspects fleeing from the police, as well as a significant increase in the numbers.
Iowa state patrol officers and officers reportedly unsheathed weapons 296 times in 2020, an increase of 83% compared to the previous year.
Along with the increase in law enforcement unrest, black people in Iowa are disproportionately implicated in these incidents. While making up only 4.1% of the population, blacks in Iowa constitute 30 percent of those involved in cases of increased force.
An example of qualified immunity can be seen in the 2017 case of Jerome Harrell. Harrell had surrendered to the police after having a traffic offense, and had been left alone in his cell. He was banging his head and screaming in distress all night until morning.
When officers came in the morning to hold him for a medical evaluation, Harrell resisted. The officers then stacked him twice and pinned him to the ground. By the time they were done with him, he was dead. The autopsy would have revealed that it was only an abnormal accident. However, a photographer noted that there was a large pool of blood in his cell.
The officers were not charged due to qualified immunity, saying the use of force was justified. It is cases like these that remind us of the dangers of justifying the deaths of people at the hands of law enforcement.
Had Harrell received proper care earlier and in his handling during restraint, his death could have been avoided. Law enforcement and lawmakers should be in more of a hurry to avoid these situations than to protect the police involved from the repercussions.
Often when conversations arise about police brutality, the argument is not whether the actions of the police were harmful. It is about whether the injured lives matter enough for there to be repercussions.
Time and time again, the justice system devalues the lives of black and brown people while protecting the perpetrators of this brutality. While qualified immunity is only a small part of the police problem in America, we should be striving to dismantle it, not enforce it.
Columns reflect the views of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.