Civil Rights Groups Write Letter To Lawmakers Pressing For End To Qualified Immunity In Police Reform Bill


A collective of civil rights groups sent a letter to legislators on Wednesday citing problems they have with the negotiations taking place around the police reform bill.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has been working on solidifying a potential solution to police reform. In a joint statement last month, they said that they had “reached an agreement on a framework addressing the major issues for bipartisan police reform,” per The Hill.The group of negotiators, including Representative Karen Bass (D-CA), Senator Tim Scott (R-SC), and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) added, “There is still more work to be done on the final bill, and nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. Over the next few weeks we look forward to continuing our work toward getting a finalized proposal across the finish line.”

One of the main points of disagreement between Democrats and Republicans is the practice of qualified immunity, which is a method of legal immunity for government officials. As explained by Cornell Law School, “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.”

As reported by The Hill on Thursday, “The Democratic-majority House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in March, which eliminated qualified immunity. The legislation was approved with no GOP support.”A collective of civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Amnesty International USA sent a letter to Bass, Booker, and Scott, as well as Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Representative James Clyburn (D-SC).

“We write to express our serious concerns, however, about the state of negotiations on qualified immunity and empowering victims of police misconduct to hold law enforcement officers and agencies accountable through civil lawsuits,” the letter reads.

The letter pointed to worries over the potential scenario in which qualified immunity would not be ended in the current legislation.

They wrote, “recent media reports indicate that the negotiations over the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act have been obstructed by a small number of law enforcement groups that are using it as an opportunity to advance proposals that would continue to insulate officers from accountability when they violate the law.”

The letter expressed apprehension that “some policymakers involved in the negotiations are demanding that qualified immunity for law enforcement officers be codified in the bill. In addition, at least one Senator involved in the negotiations has suggested that only law enforcement agencies should be held liable — not officers — for the acts of their officers, and only in cases involving death and the most serious bodily injury.”

The group pressed, “Unless the course is corrected, the Senate bill that comes out of these negotiations may take us backwards by perpetuating or increasing the already stiff legal barriers to holding law enforcement accountable for violating peoples’ constitutional rights.”

The letter focused in part on qualified immunity, writing that it “is an affront to our legal system and to the pursuit of justice. The undersigned organizations urge the negotiators to adopt police accountability legislation that ends qualified immunity rather than a bill that explicitly codifies it or that the Supreme Court could construe as ratifying it.”

The letter added, “Existing law treats violations of all of our constitutional rights equally and provides for remedies regardless of which rights law enforcement officers violate or how vulnerable the victim.”

It concluded, “Narrow employer liability proposals currently under consideration by Senate negotiators fail to treat all rights equally and would instead create a hierarchy of rights and a hierarchy of victims, in which only the violation of certain rights that result in serious physical injury or death are enforceable against police departments, leaving the rest unrealized.”

Police reform has been a prominent issue in Congress since last year when George Floyd died after an encounter with former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin during which Chauvin kneeled on Floyd for a period of almost nine minutes. Chauvin was recently sentenced to 22.5 years in prison for the death of Floyd.

Following the many calls for police reform amidst protests and rioting last summer, Senator Scott introduced legislation last year that was ultimately blocked by Democrats.

As The Daily Wire reported at the time:

Democrats fought the Republican bill, led by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), which they said did not go far enough in addressing critical issues at the crux of police reform. The bill did not ban the use of chokeholds outright, preferring instead to warn departments to craft their own policies against the practice or risk losing federal funds. The bill also shied away from outlawing so-called “no-knock” warrants, preferring instead to establish a national database to track those warrants’ use and abuse.

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