Ending qualified immunity (QI) will not bankrupt cops, according to a study from 2014. A recent article published in Reason clarifies this major misconception about qualified immunity. In the piece, Reason’s Jacob Sullum explores an eye-opening 2014 civil rights study.
George Floyd’s murder ignited nationwide demand for police reform. In response, many states took action. Colorado, Connecticut, and New Mexico passed laws targeting QI. In Minnesota, where George Floyd was killed, a Minneapolis court convicted Derek Chauvin for his crime.
Federal QI Legislation and the Bankruptcy Myth
But on a federal level, the situation is different. As Reason reports, a year after George Floyd’s death, “Congress is still mulling reforms that could help prevent” police abuse.
On March 3, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. But the bill has stalled in the Senate. Movement is at a standstill because of qualified immunity. Per Reason, the debate over QI “has been dominated by Republican warnings that the threat of ruinous personal liability would have a chilling effect on legitimate policing.” Simply put, Republicans claim that ending QI will bankrupt police officers.
However, as Reason’s Jacob Sullum writes, this concern is a “big fat red herring.” In his piece, Sullum explains how bad cops “almost never pay a dime in damages.”
NYU Law Review QI Study
To prove that ending QI will not bankrupt cops, Jacob Sullum examines a 2014 New York University Law Review study of different civil rights cases. UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz led this study. Professor Schwartz is an expert on qualified immunity. She’s also a notable critic of the doctrine.
Joanna Schwartz’s civil rights study found that from 2006–2011, “officers financially contributed to settlements and judgments in just .41% of the approximately 9225 civil rights damages actions resolved in plaintiffs’ favor.” In addition, Professor Schwartz noted that “their contributions amounted to just .02% of the over $730 million spent by cities, counties, and states.”
Another revelation: “officers did not pay a dime of the over $3.9 million awarded in punitive damages.” As for legal fees, officers accused of misconduct were well-covered. As it turns out, these cops are “almost always represented by…attorneys hired by union representatives.”
The bottom line: Despite detractors’ insistence, ending qualified immunity will not bankrupt officers. Nor will it have a “chilling effect on legitimate policing.” In fact, abolishing QI will only affect bad cops, not the good ones. And Professor Joanna Schwartz’s 2014 civil rights study proves this case.