Reform measure would dismantle ‘qualified immunity’ that shields bad police officers

House subcommittee to review police reform recommendation Tuesday

By: - February 22, 2021 6:14 pm

(Photo by Juanmonino / iStock Getty Images)

A Louisiana House subcommittee will meet Tuesday to review a police reform recommendation that would dismantle the qualified immunity that blocks lawsuits against police officers who wrongfully kill or injure citizens. It is perhaps the most critical of the 18 recommendations being submitted by the legislature’s Police Training, Screening and De-escalation Task Force.

The House Qualified Immunity Subcommittee of House Civil Law and Procedure will meet at 10 a.m. to review, study and possibly amend the task force’s recommendation, which states in full: “No element of qualified immunity shall be available to law enforcement officers as a defense to liability for claims brought under state law for wrongful death, physical injury, or personal injury inflicted by law enforcement officers through any use of physical force in a manner determined by a finder of fact in a judicial proceeding to be unreasonable.” 

It is the only item of business on the subcommittee’s agenda, and it has the potential to bring significant reform to policing in Louisiana by allowing individual law enforcement officers to be held accountable for their misdeeds — at least under civil law. 

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that renders police officers and other public employees immune from lawsuits when they commit misconduct, violate someone’s rights or break the law. Though it can apply to many government employees, it is almost exclusively used by police officers.

“It has given some bad police officers some really strong protections,” said New Orleans civil rights attorney Bill Quigley.

Quigley said the recommendation, if adopted by legislators and signed into law, could be a game changer by ensuring that no one — not even police officers — are above the law, he said.

“This is a movement that is going on across the country,” Quigley said in a phone interview Monday. “The way it stands right now is police have ‘super protection’ under the law. They have more than any bus driver, airplane pilot, teacher, doctor, or anyone else. The result is there is very rarely any accountability for law enforcement in civil courts.”

Those who are opposed to such recommendations have often argued that a change in the law would open a floodgate of lawsuits against police and prevent officers from effective policing out of fear of being sued. However, judges and juries are often not sympathetic to people with frivolous claims, and the recommendation doesn’t seek to make police officers vulnerable, Quigley said.

“It’s not as if they’re stripped bare of protections,” he said. “They’re just afforded the same protections as everyone else.”

Civil Rights attorney William Most agreed with Quigley and pointed out that it would only apply to claims under state law in state courts — not federal courts, which is where a majority of civil rights lawsuits are handled. Nevertheless, he said, the recommendation is an essential starting point for real police reform.

“Qualified immunity shields officers who break the law from accountability for their actions,” Most said. “We need more accountability for these officers, not less — and so this change would be a victory for communities who have historically been harassed by police.” 

Louisiana lawmakers will consider and vote on any legislation that emerges from the task force’s recommendations during the upcoming session in April.

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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