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Effort to roll back police officers’ qualified immunity from civil suits dies in House committee

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Paul Braun
/
WRKF
Rep. Edmond Jordan (D-Baton Rouge) presents a bill on qualified immunity to members of the House Civil Law and Procedure Committee. June 17, 2020.

A House Committee shot down a bill Monday that would have rolled back law enforcement officers’ qualified immunity from civil lawsuits. The effort was part of a nationwide push to empower victims of police violence and hold bad actors accountable in civil courts when criminal courts fall short.

But many of the law enforcement groups that considered paring down the legal protections for officers last year reversed course.

Capitol Access reporter Paul Braun spoke with WWNO Host Karl Lengel about the discussion. Parts of their conversation that were edited from the radio for time have been included in the transcript below.

Karl Lengel: Paul, for starters, remind us exactly what qualified immunity is?

Paul Braun: Qualified immunity is designed to protect public servants, including law enforcement officers, from civil lawsuits stemming from their actions on the job.

It’s a high legal standard and it works like this:

A plaintiff who believes that their rights were violated has to prove two things.

One: that law enforcement officers’ conduct was unlawful. And two: that the officers should have known that they were violating a clearly established law because a prior court case found similar police actions under similar circumstances to be illegal.

The courts really split hairs over what is deemed similar actions in similar circumstances.

So, you can see how that creates a legal Catch-22 — the case law and precedent needed to successfully sue a law enforcement officer hasn’t been established because previous victims of police abuse couldn’t sue and the case law and precedent hadn’t been established.

State Rep. Edmond Jordan, a Democrat who sponsored the bill that was shot down in committee today, said rolling back qualified immunity would give victims of police violence and their families recourse when the criminal courts fail them. And he reasons that opening cops up to liability in civil suits might make them think twice before using excessive force.

And that’s exactly why law enforcement groups oppose him. They say officers should have the latitude to make split second decisions when they’re on the job and potentially in harm’s way. And they worry that making officers personally liable would also make them think twice before joining the force at a time when many agencies are already struggling with recruitment.

KL: Is this lawmakers’ first attempt to rollback qualified immunity?

PB: The story arc for this effort spans three years, and it all starts with the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

Democratic state lawmakers, particularly members of the Legislative Black Caucus, entered a special legislative session weeks after Floyd’s death with a long list of police reforms they wanted to enact. Rolling back qualified immunity was at the top of the list.

Back then, Jordan brought a bill similar to the one we saw in committee today that would have stripped qualified immunity only in cases where a person suffered severe bodily harm or death at the hands of an officer.

The Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and police unions opposed the effort. Those groups have considerable sway among the legislature’s Republican majority. And after a raw, emotional five-hour hearing, a House Civil Law Committee shot down Jordan’s bill.

In a show of solidarity, nearly every House member in the Black caucus stood behind Jordan in the committee room as the final votes were tallied — many of them with tears in their eyes.

Thanks at least in part to the emotional appeal, the Sheriffs’ Association and other law enforcement groups met with Black state lawmakers and tried to figure out a way to change the law around qualified immunity. Together they brought a compromise bill that was watered down from the original version.

But even with the support of the Sheriffs’ Association and other law enforcement groups, the change was too much for conservatives in the legislature. It cleared the House, but not before Republican lawmakers attached a poison pill amendment, and Jordan gave it up.

This year he didn’t collaborate with law enforcement groups, and they voiced their strong opposition to the bill. That’s what doomed it.

KL: What’s changed since then?

PB: Well, the folks leading the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and chiefs of police faced a lot of backlash from their rank-and-file deputies and officers for even participating in those qualified immunity discussions last year. Even while the organizations’ leaders officially supported the bill, beat cops and union representatives called their representatives and expressed their personal objections.

Officers in Louisiana can look to Colorado as an example of what happens when you roll back qualified immunity. They did that in the months after George Floyd’s death, and now police there can be held personally liable for up to $25,000. Cops don’t like the idea of having to keep malpractice insurance, like a doctor, on a law enforcement salary.

As far as other legislation is concerned, one of the leading proposals is a bill that would yank a law enforcement officer’s P.O.S.T. certification if they’re fired or they resign because of wrongdoing on the job. It’s designed to prevent bad actors from bouncing to other law enforcement agencies once they were identified and disciplined by one agency. It has the support of major law enforcement groups and Gov. John Bel Edwards. It cleared the Senate earlier this month and is awaiting a committee hearing in the House.