Recently, Rep. Ayanna Pressley and Sen. Ed Markey introduced the Ending Qualified Immunity Act. This federal bill would prevent police officers and other public servants from hiding behind qualified immunity when they engage in egregious misconduct.
As a policing professional, I fully support this legislation as it would establish real accountability in law enforcement.
I spent over three decades in California law enforcement, retiring in 2018 as a commander in the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. You can’t name an incident or a crime I haven’t seen or investigated.
I know the challenges police officers face intimately, when we ask them to make split-second, life-or-death decisions. It’s completely reasonable to give officers the benefit of the doubt if they make an honest mistake.
However, what happens when law enforcement oversteps, when law enforcement violates our citizens’ rights, when law enforcement’s actions are willfully vicious? When an officer of the law commits abuse, the victim should have the right to sue. Yet, more often than not, the victim can’t — due to a legal loophole known as qualified immunity.
Last year, law enforcement officers killed close to 1,200 people, making 2022 the deadliest year for police violence on record. In today’s America, we are constantly exposed to an unsettling stream of videos of police brutalizing Black citizens. When bad cops are not held accountable, the community notices. And in order to keep communities truly safe, we need an ending to qualified immunity.
Furthermore, qualified immunity is a Jim Crow relic.
During the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, African Americans were being elected to statehouses, Congress, the Senate and appointed to governmental agencies. To protect newly emancipated Black Americans from racial violence, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1871, also known as the Klu Klux Klan Act.
The Klan’s vile tactics are well documented, from public lynching to voter suppression to redlining. It’s also known that, at the time, Klan members were in positions of power. They openly held office, were appointed to governmental boards and became police officers.
The Civil Rights Act of 1871 stood for nearly a century, until the Supreme Court — not Congress — diluted the protections enacted by our elected representatives when it introduced qualified immunity in 1967. Since then, qualified immunity has made it virtually impossible for everyday citizens harmed by government actors to seek the justice they deserve.
Here’s one recent example: A court granted qualified immunity to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department narcotics officers — including all nine members of an elite team — who in February 2020 were charged with stealing over $1.4 million in seized drug cash and using much of that money to buy homes, luxury cars, jewelry and stocks.
These days, we hear from law enforcement officials that staffing levels are at an all-time low. That recruitment efforts have stalled. That community trust in policing has hit rock-bottom.
It isn’t hard to see why.
The ill-conceived doctrine of qualified immunity has shattered communities and damaged the policing profession. When Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court justices from opposing ends of the ideological spectrum, agree that qualified immunity must go, we know something must be done.
I support the Ending Qualified Immunity Act for the simple reason that this bill will restore trust in law enforcement and finally ensure that those who were hurt by corrupt public officials will be heard in a court of law.
Accountability is the key to good policing. The time to end qualified immunity is now.
Dave Myers, a former commander and 33-year veteran of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, ran twice for sheriff. He currently serves as director of safety and security for Jewish Family Service of San Diego.