Should you be able to sue police? Qualified immunity in the spotlight

Published: Sep. 19, 2022 at 6:06 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - The Rutland Area NAACP is looking to reset the conversation over qualified immunity-- legal protections for government officials.

It comes ahead of a key report examining how often the legal doctrine is used by Vermont law enforcement.

The debate over qualified immunity was divisive and it largely happened over remote legislating.

Monday afternoon saw the first of several learning sessions aimed at resetting the conversation around rolling back the legal doctrine and bringing down the temperature.

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that protects government officials from being sued for constitutional violations while they are on the job unless that person violates what experts call clearly established law.

Rolling back qualified immunity became a central focus of police reform after the 2020 murder of George Floyd.

Vermont lawmakers considered following Colorado and New Mexico and rolling back the policy for police last year. But it faced staunch opposition.

So the Legislature opted for a study examining how often qualified immunity is used and whether it is actually being abused.

“People see qualified immunity and they think split-second decision-making. People shouldn’t be held liable for split-second mistakes and officers shouldn’t be getting bankrupted. Those protections exist elsewhere in our legal framework,” said Joanna Schwartz of the UCLA School of Law.

Monday, the NAACP of Rutland hosted a virtual panel with legal experts and law enforcement to outline what qualified immunity is and what it isn’t.

“Training, education and policy-- how can we make changes within our department and in our community to build trust? We should look at all of our cases like that,” said Brendan Cox of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.

Singling out law enforcement was a big sticking point last year. But experts say systemic issues in criminal justice go beyond police and include public defenders, prosecutors and judges to improve the criminal justice system before it reaches a lawsuit in the first place.

“It is possible to think about a bill that addresses all of government then I think that is a valuable step,” Schwartz said.

“We have a system that too often relies on settlements for lawsuits, plea bargains. We too often rely on how the system interacts in a very broken way and we allow that brokenness to happen,” Cox said.

The Vermont Department of Public Safety which oversees the Vermont State Police was not available for an interview, but they have stressed that if Vermont got rid of qualified immunity, staffing shortages VSP and other local departments face will only get worse.

The Legislature’s final report examining where and when qualified immunity is used is due in November.

The NAACP is holding another forum Monday night for community advocates, and one more Tuesday where the state’s top law enforcement officials will be in attendance.