The council voted last week to adopt five bills as well as three resolutions that are described as “designed to increase police accountability and reimagine public safety in our city.”
One of the most significant of the measures adopted by the council was to eliminate qualified immunity, a doctrine that insulates government officials from civil liability for their conduct. Qualified immunity became the focus of intense public debate after it was cast into the limelight amid protests last summer following George Floyd’s police-custody death.
Proponents agree that the doctrine is important to allow government officials such as police officers to carry out their jobs with protection from undue interference and threats of liability. They also say it prevents frivolous or retaliatory lawsuits against officers.
Critics note the doctrine prevents officials from facing consequences for misconduct or abuse of power if their actions violate the U.S. Constitution but don’t contravene a “clearly established” rule.
Brooklyn Councilman Stephen Levin, who sponsored the legislation, told Pix11 in an interview that limiting qualified immunity makes officers more accountable.
“There has to be consequences for misconduct,” he told the outlet. “I was really searching for legislation that we can pursue that would have a meaningful impact.
“That officer can walk into court and on the very first day, say, ‘I’m not even supposed to be here because this plaintiff doesn’t even have the right to bring me to court, I’m immune.’”
Critics of the move argue that it would make the public less safe by making police reluctant to take decisive action against violent criminals for fear of being sued.
Harvard Law School Professor Emeritus Alan Dershowitz called the decision to ax the protections an “outrage” as it leaves those on the front lines of the fight against crime more vulnerable.
“This is an outrage to take away qualified immunity only from the police,” Dershowitz told Newsmax in an interview March 27. He argued that the measure will have a chilling effect on responding officers, who are likely to begin asking themselves, “Will they be able to sue us for making an honest and simple mistake under pressure?” he said.
He suggested that it’s unfair to target police officers by removing the protections that other officials continue to enjoy.
Former mayor and first responder Rep. Carlos A. Gimenez (R-Fla.) spoke about the importance of qualified immunity.
“Democrats discuss ways to push needed police reforms, but in this dysfunctional Congress, we got a bill that strips our frontline police officers from qualified immunity, that will weaken and possibly destroy our communities’ police forces,” he said.
“Taking away qualified immunity will lead to police officers not taking decisive action and rendering impossible [the ability] to do their job. Without the security, officers will resign and deplete our [forces].”