by Dale Chappell
The fear that a police officer would be held personally responsible, should he be sued because of his actions in the line of duty, is nothing short of irrational and unfounded, a May 2021 article in reason.com concluded. This fear is what has driven the U.S. Supreme Court to create what’s called “qualified immunity,” a court-made doctrine that has no real basis in the law.
The sticking point of the debate in Congress about reforming qualified immunity to allow officers to be held accountable for their actions comes down to supporters of the officers arguing that eliminating or otherwise curtailing immunity would open them to personal financial ruin. They argue that officers are required to make “split-second” decisions on the job and that they should be protected if they make a decision that turns out bad.
But a 2014 study by UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz found that personal financial ruin for officers, even without qualified immunity, is a non-existent fear. “Government agencies paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement,” she said. In fact, officers never paid a dime of punitive damages awarded, even when the officer was disciplined and terminated for his wrongful conduct.
Some states have tossed qualified immunity for cops and created laws requiring departments to indemnify its officers, meaning that the department pays any legal costs for a lawsuit, including attorneys’ fees—no money comes out of the officers’ pocket at all. In real life, though, that’s what happens in nearly all departments, Schwartz said. Qualified immunity, she says, should be a thing of the past. “These officers have nothing reasonably to fear, at least where payouts are concerned.”
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