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Will Congress finally address qualified immunity?

The time for serious police reforms has come. There is no ignoring that fact. Cities and states around the nation are already working on what those reforms will look like.

Colorado just implemented a new set of standards that other jurisdictions are sure to study. It includes:

• Banning chokeholds

• Limiting an officer’s use of deadly force to life-and-death situations only

• Prohibiting police from shooting at a fleeing suspect

• Mandating body cameras for all local and state police by 2023

• Releasing publicly all body camera footage

• Requiring officers to report other officers for wrongdoing

• Requiring officers to report every contact with a criminal suspect and include the person’s race, gender and ethnicity

• Holding officers personally liable up to $25,000 if they are found guilty of violating an individual’s civil rights

A good template to contemplate, I suppose. That last point is a nod to the current call to do away with the “qualified immunity” law enforcement officers and other public officials currently enjoy that shields them from citizen lawsuits. The idea being that if an officer knows he or she will have to pay out of their own pocket if they violate someone’s constitutional rights they might be more careful when dealing with the public.

There has been so much focus on qualified immunity lately you would think it was an idea chiseled in stone. It is not. In fact, it isn’t even a law. It was the U.S. Supreme Court, circa 1967, that first embraced the idea that a police officer should not be hindered during duty by worry that his or her split-second decision might result in a lawsuit. The justices declared cops should be protected by “limited immunity” to citizen’s suits. Over the years that umbrella of protection was expanded by the courts. I won’t bore you with all the legal mumbo jumbo, but various judges allowed officers ever more wiggle room to claim protection from legal action.

Important to note: officers do not have absolute immunity. They can, and have been, held liable for violating citizens’ rights and their local or state governments have covered the payouts. In several fatal shooting cases officers have been sentenced to prison, but that is rare.

The U.S. Supreme Court, the place where this idea was birthed so many decades ago, just recently declined to review a lower court decision that gave two San Antonio police officers immunity from a wrongful death suit. It was filed by the family of a Black man who, in 2015, was shot with police Taser guns multiple times during a domestic dispute. Norman Cooper, 33, died at the scene. The cause was found to have been “intoxication with methamphetamine complicated by his prolonged struggle” with police.

Legal experts have wondered for years why Congress hasn’t stepped up to pass legislation that either outlaws the practice of qualified immunity for cops or crafts a more definitive way to apply it.

Now that there is an unstoppable movement to reform the nation’s police departments, lots of citizens are wondering when Congress will act, not just on the question of limited immunity but on a broader set of federally mandated standards for police conduct.

Don’t hold your breath. Members with a “D” after their name continue to be at war with colleagues who sport an “R,” and vice versa. Democrats worked up a bill that included a clear way around limited immunity protections and would allow victims of rogue cops to sue. The Republican version made no mention of qualified immunity. The idea of compromise between the two political parties remains a foreign concept, even in the face of such a diverse and nationwide call for change.

This lack of leadership during these troubled times reminds me of the days following the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was hoped that from the profound trauma a consensus would emerge about responsible gun ownership. It didn’t happen. My greatest fear today is that even after the prolonged protests against police racism, destructive riots and occupations, and the multitude of calls for law enforcement reforms, Congress will continue to do nothing.

That leaves long overdue changes up to your local and state officials. Think they are up to the task?

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