Once a cop, always a cop; I have had it since 1987. The badge that I have worn for 30 years and what it represents are important to me.
That’s why I support S1991, the bill that deals with qualified immunity, the legal doctrine made by judges that makes it impossible for people to successfully sue officers who have violated their rights. Under qualified immunity, courts require plaintiffs not only to show that their civil rights have been violated, but also to identify a prior case with facts nearly identical to those in their own case. Thus, even in cases where the court finds that a plaintiff’s rights have been violated, a lawsuit may be dismissed because the plaintiff is unable to pinpoint an identical violation from a prior case.
Qualified immunity applications are intended to protect officers who must make split-second decisions in difficult and dangerous situations. I’ve been there during those times, so I understand why – and I agree – that officers need protections. But it’s important for my fellow officers to know that judges and juries already tend to defer to our discretion, even without qualified immunity. These split-second decisions will be assessed on their own merits, and disputes will only be adjudicated after a judge determines an action was unreasonable.
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Because of the way qualified immunity is interpreted, it prevents even the most egregious cases from being heard in civil court. As a police officer, I have always approached my job by putting myself in the shoes of the people I have sworn to serve and protect. I know that if someone I love was hurt or killed, I would want the chance to figure out what happened, and I think everyone deserves this resolution.
But there’s also an important corollary to that, which is that as an officer, if there was an allegation that I violated someone’s civil rights, I wouldn’t want it be cancelled. I would like it released in the light of day so that I am cleared of the accusation, rather than having the question that has been on my mind for the rest of my career and people not knowing where the truth lies .
As an officer who has overseen internal investigations into officer misconduct for many years, I know the difference between reasonable and unreasonable decisions. Detaining protesters without suspicion, warrant or motive is not reasonable. Nor is it about pepper spraying someone for refusing to show ID.
Prior to my retirement, I was Deputy Chief Community Relations Officer for the Rochester Police Department. This particular position was created by the mayor to strengthen the bond between citizens and officers. One of my main responsibilities was to go out into the community and have conversations. This role reinforced what I had long suspected: communities need to trust the police so that we can help keep them safe.
Ending qualified immunity will help us restore our relationship by providing much-needed accountability to the police – if people know there will be ramifications if an officer acts unreasonably, they’re more likely to start hurting us again trust. Additionally, it will require police departments across the state to not only screen academy applicants more carefully, but also to properly and appropriately discipline officers who violate community trust through misconduct.
S1991, which currently sits on the desks of Albany lawmakers, is good news for police officers. Ending qualified immunity would ensure that the courts answer the most important question in these cases: has a constitutional violation occurred? Answering this question would help teach officers what is and is not within the bounds of the law.
This bill is also good for the police because it compensates officers, meaning they won’t have to pay out of pocket, as some are required to do now. This ensures that if a plaintiff wins, they do indeed receive their award and it reflects that sometimes it is not just the failures of an individual agent and that our agencies have a role to play in upholding the Constitution.
Opponents argue that, without qualified immunity, officers won’t want to do their job. I don’t think that’s true. And the statistics match. Decent cops do the right thing. They do not need qualified immunity.
As agents of peace, we can and must be pillars of the community. We need to lead by example by putting in place real systems of accountability. Terminating skilled immunity is a great way to start building those systems.
Deputy Chief Wayne Harris (retired) served 30 years with the Rochester Police Department. He is currently President and Speaker of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a non-profit group of police, prosecutors, judges and other law enforcement officials working to improve the justice system.