McLinden: Qualified immunity protects you and me

Protects police from frivolous lawsuits

by Tom McLinden

The debate to deny law enforcement officers qualified immunity has focused solely on the alleged victims of police misconduct and ignores the other repercussions of this legislation. The assumption is that we unjustly grant police a pass when it comes to violating a person’s civil rights.

Tom McLinden

In fact qualified immunity is intended to protect you and me. If police live in fear of being sued for every action they take it can’t help but affect their performance. You only have to read the Stowe police blotter to see the unbelievable array of situations police find themselves in, many of which require quick decisions made under pressure; sometimes with deadly consequences. Why risk your life saving someone in a burning car, or breaking up a fight between a husband and wife, or do any of the other lifesaving things police do on a daily basis? In one recent national case a police officer was criticized for using excessive force when he shot a woman attempting to stab an other woman. In this case he could end up being sued no matter how he reacted: either for using excessive force, or not protecting the woman being attacked. 

Qualified Immunity is not intended to give police a free pass in violating the rights of others, it is intended to protect officers from a flood of frivolous lawsuits that would make it difficult and potentially financially ruinous to perform their jobs. Remember police deal with criminal behavior every day of their lives, eliminating qualified immunity would allow the most hardened and violent criminals the right to harass law enforcement officers with frivolous lawsuits just by claiming their civil rights were violated. In addition to disrupting the officers, municipalities would eventually end up bearing the cost of these lawsuits in a situation where everyone loses. 

Qualified Immunity addresses a difficult balancing act between the freedom police need to perform their duties, and the rights of the public. The debate is not served by inflammatory rhetoric and accusations. This legislation should not serve as a proxy battle for those looking to defund the police; the stakes are too high. We are facing unprecedented shortages in law enforcement personnel due in part to the vilification of law enforcement officials who are regarded by many as the problem and not the solution. One legislator went as far as to say “There is no such thing as a good cop.” The defunding and backlash against police in Burlington has been a colossal failure with even the supporters admitting it hasn’t worked out. While there are always bad actors in any profession, we don’t judge an entire profession, whether it’s teachers, doctors and nurses, or legislators, by the actions of a few. And isn’t it unfair to single out police while still maintaining qualified immunity for all other state employees?

There are already protections in place to discipline police who violate a clearly established constitutional right even with qualified immunity in place. While the George Floyd case has been used as an example of the failed system the George Floyd family has been awarded $27 million in the largest pre-trial settlement in history, and Derek Chauvin the policeman involved has been charged with murder, along with two accomplices.

Instead of deterring police officers from doing their jobs, making it more difficult to hire badly needed police recruits, and increasing nuisance lawsuits, let’s focus on balanced, constructive measures that can address the real problem. There is broad support for improved training for police, and measures to insure greater accountability for police misconduct. Citizens can be educated to avoid unnecessary confrontations with police that can lead to dangerous escalations, and police unions must not be allowed to shelter police who have acted illegally. The list goes on…

Let’s not put ourselves in a position where when police are confronted with a life-or-death situation their first instinct is to make sure they don’t do anything that will land them in court, instead of protecting you and me. That is the reason we hire them in the first place. Let’s work on solving the problem, not replacing one problem with an other.

Tom McLinden is chair of the Stowe Republican Party and the Lamoille County Republican Party.

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