Civil Lawsuits Lead to Better Safer Law Enforcement

Monday, December 7, 2020


As the nation seeks solutions to the crises of police brutality and racial injustice in law enforcement, one idea has emerged as a critical starting point for many federal and state lawmakers: abolishing the doctrine of “qualified immunity.” Qualified immunity, a highly controversial doctrine created by the U.S. Supreme Court with what many consider to be “dubious reasoning,” protects police officers from civil liability when they kill or injure someone using excessive force, brutality or other misconduct. Under this doctrine, even a police officer criminally convicted of murder – as rare as that is – could still be immune from accountability in civil court.

Fortunately for victims and their families, qualified immunity does not prevent police departments from being sued. Many such suits have been brought and resulted in important changes to policies and practices, including serving as a tool for police departments to identify and remedy potential widespread abuses.

In this report, we show how civil lawsuits can play a critical role in moving towards police accountability and reform. These are important cases, but far less impactful than they could be because of qualified immunity. When compensation is awarded to victims and families, it is typically taxpayers who pay,  while the officer who commits the constitutional violation is off the hook. In other words, if accountability is the goal, compensation is being paid by the wrong people. This only serves to undermine the deterrent function of the civil justice system to control police abuse of power.

Abolishing qualified immunity would be a crucial next step towards accomplishing meaningful accountability, justice and reform.

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