Democrats in the Michigan Legislature unveiled a package of bills last week aimed at restoring “public trust through increased accountability measures” for police officers.
There are a number of proposals that would work against public safety. But the most alarming piece of the 16-bill package is tossing qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity is a protection for some government workers, including police, that acknowledges split-second decisions are necessary in the job and that officers shouldn’t be held personally liable for making reasonable mistakes on duty — like arresting the wrong person. This shields officers from certain civil lawsuits.
It does not apply in a situation that a “reasonable person would have known” it to be a constitutional violation. It also does not protect against criminal actions or criminal negligence.
“Much of what we do as public servants requires split-second decisions,” says Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. “Assuming that we’re not knowingly violating a constitutional right, there’s some type of immunity.”
Democrats want to remove this protection as they see it as giving police a pass on breaking the rules. Rep. Felicia Brabec (D-Pittsfield) called qualified immunity a “rubber stamp” for “bad behavior.”
That’s a mischaracterization. Qualified immunity is an essential protection for police doing their jobs.
Stevenson says stripping this immunity would have negative consequences like constant civil litigation, which would cost taxpayers.
Beyond just money, more officers are likely to leave the profession if immunity is removed, Stevenson predicts, and officers would be reluctant to take action in difficult circumstances that could be “open to 20/20 hindsight.”
“Everything officers do would always be open to a lawsuit,” he says.
If an action is clearly unconstitutional, officers can be held responsible. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was criminally prosecuted for the murder of George Floyd, and his family received a civil settlement of $27 million.
Democrats are attempting to frame their proposal as taking action against police brutality. Brabec said her goal is that officers “be held to the same standard as everyone else.”
Yet police make decisions every day that most of us rarely face. Officers shouldn’t have to fear punishment for every perceived misstep. Their job is hard enough already.
Our Michigan police officers deserve better.
While bad behavior by police is not excusable, reasonable protections like qualified immunity exist for a reason, and state Democrats shouldn’t try to take them away.
— THE DETROIT NEWS