Excerpts from Christina Carrega piece in Capital B:
In civil court, qualified immunity has blocked families and survivors from holding a police officer, who may have skirted criminal charges, financially accountable. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent during a 10-year period to settle civil lawsuits stemming from police violence, The Washington Post reported.
The fight for justice can come in three different forms for families and survivors of police brutality: through criminal court, civil litigation, and demands for systemic overhaul. Some may want all three. Others may feel shortchanged by a monetary payout. And it’s very rare for all three to happen.
In reality, most families and survivors of police brutality cannot afford an attorney’s retainer fee and aren’t on the radar of high-profile civil rights attorneys who can waive their costs. Then there’s a larger bulk of victims of injustice who are left with the pain of losing a loved one, or who live with the trauma of surviving police brutality without any criminal justice or financial recourse.
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts announced the reintroduction of the Ending Qualified Immunity Act. The same week, after an Ohio grand jury declined to indict any of the eight Akron police officers who killed Jayland Walker last year, ABC News 5 Cleveland reported that the family will likely file a civil lawsuit near the anniversary of his death in June.
The proposed bill to end qualified immunity aims to eliminate the legal doctrine that was created 55 years ago this month by the U.S. Supreme Court. The bill was first introduced by former U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan following the murder of George Floyd. The legal protection is offered to law enforcement on all levels and professions, such as government officials and school administrators, that relieves them of financial responsibility if they are named as a defendant in a lawsuit.
At a press conference last week to reintroduce the bill, Pressley was joined by one of its co-sponsors — U.S. Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts — and by Lewis and other mothers whose children have been killed by police.
The first bill received bipartisan support from 65 House Democrats, including Pressley, and one Republican co-sponsor. Once Amash, a former Republican, left office, Pressley picked up the bill and reintroduced it in 2021, but it didn’t receive the same momentum. It was co-sponsored by 41 House Democrats and no Republicans. The latest effort launched with 39 House co-sponsors and three from the Senate, as well as endorsements from dozens of organizations, including Black Lives Matter Grassroots and the Boston Herald.
Eliminating qualified immunity is also a provision under the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that has lingered in Congress since 2021. Getting rid of the legal doctrine has given many Republicans pause to get behind the sweeping police reform package, and a standalone bill is expected to get a similar reception.
“I truly do look forward to the day where people do not have to weaponize or relive their trauma in order to compel action from their government,” Pressley said during the press conference on Capitol Hill.
“Stories of harm and abuse by law enforcement are not one-offs, or rare incidents. For the Black community, in particular, these stories are not new,” she said.
“We want to be very clear that the Ending Qualified Immunity Act is meaningful, and it’s common sense. But it’s not radical. It’s a common sense thing that if you kill someone, if you commit harm, you should be held accountable,” said Melina Abdullah, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Grassroots.
“We cannot and we must not wait in vain for the Supreme Court to fix its own mistake,” Markey said. “There will be no true justice until there is racial justice, and there will be no racial justice until we can end qualified immunity once and for all in the United States of America.”
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