“But police officers can be charged if they unlawfully shoot someone. This system is already in place.”: A Response

     It is incredibly unlikely that a police officer will be convicted for fatally shooting someone. On-duty American police officers shoot and kill someone more than 900 times each year. Since 2005, only 35 police officers have been convicted of a crime related to an on-duty fatal shooting. Only about 1% of all fatal police shootings result in murder or manslaughter charges. It is nonsensical to assume that 99% of those cases were justified. 

     Police accountability is key, and not punishing deserving officers contributes to a “shoot now, worry later” mentality that leads to police acting irresponsibly. This mentality can lead to police officers feeling as if they are above the law, and creates a striking power imbalance that has been showcased in the global protests today. 

Qualified immunity is a doctrine in the Supreme Court that essentially offers police a free pass for their wrongdoings, as public officials are held to a much lower standard. Cornell Law School explains:

 Specifically, qualified immunity protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff's rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right… qualified immunity is not immunity from having to pay money damages, but rather immunity from having to go through the costs of a trial at all.

“Clearly established” rights are tricky and blurred. Watch this video for more information. It has only become harder for police to violate a “clearly established” right, as the definition has many inconsistencies.

While theoretically, qualified immunity is well-intentioned, the system has not delivered the immunity’s main goal: “the need to hold public officials accountable when they exercise power irresponsibly and the need to shield officials from harassment, distraction, and liability when they perform their duties reasonably.” It can prevent cops from having a trial, even if there was illegal conduct. It is so very flawed.

The flaws:

  • “Reuters identified more than three dozen cases in which qualified immunity protected officers whose actions had been deemed unlawful.” 

  • “Plaintiffs in excessive force cases against police have had a harder time getting past qualified immunity since a 2009 Supreme Court decision,” (Pearson vs Callahan), “it gave judges the option to simply ignore the question of whether a cop used excessive force and instead focus solely on whether the conduct was clearly established as unlawful.”

  • The court usually sides with the police.

  • Judges are increasingly likely to grant immunity without first resolving whether they acted illegally.

  • When police are denied immunity, they can appeal immediately afterward (while the case is still in progress). This is not available to others, who have to wait until after a final judgment. This is called an interlocutory appeal, and it is very controversial.

  • “The high court has also put its thumb on the scale by repeatedly tweaking the process. It has allowed police to request immunity before all evidence has been presented.”

This concept may be tricky to understand and explain in-depth, as it has many facets. Please refer to either of these articles for more information. It breaks down qualified immunity and its many issues.

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WRITTEN BY:

Marian Caballo

GUIDE WRITING TEAM

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This resource aims to amplify the voices of the Black community, educate people of all ages and races about the Black Lives Matter movement, and guide the country towards a place of equity. 

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