Legal Experts: States Can Reform “Dysfunctional” Policing

Legal experts Alexander A. Reinert, Joanna C. Schwartz, and James E. Pfander discuss how states can protect public safety by abolishing qualified immunity (QI) in a recent USA Today op-ed. As they write, “Today’s crisis in the criminal legal system…provides an opportunity for a new kind of civil rights federalism—one that begins with state legislative action.” 

QI, the legal experts explain, “has become a point of focus for the national movement to reform a dysfunctional and racist policing system.” That’s because the doctrine is the greatest barrier to justice for victims of police brutality—victims who are disproportionately people of color. 

Yet despite overwhelming public support for commonsense police reform, the federal government has refused to confront this critical issue. In their piece, the legal experts remark how it “seems unlikely that federal lawmakers will solve the problem [of qualified immunity] in the short term.” In September, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would’ve repealed QI for bad cops, stalled in the Senate. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court “continues to restrict access to justice” by upholding the harmful rule.  

However, the legal experts also indicate that a solution does exist: “Because qualified immunity is a creature of the Supreme Court’s flawed interpretation of a federal civil rights statute, nothing stops state lawmakers from doing away with the defense as it applies to a legal claim based on state law.”

Various states have already taken action to either repeal or limit qualified immunity. “Colorado has started down this path,” write the legal experts, “enacting legislation that…[allows] for people whose constitutional rights are violated by law enforcement officers. The same goes for New Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Connecticut.” 

And it doesn’t end there, as “Other states are actively considering reforms aimed at broadening civil rights enforcement.” These include New York, Vermont, and Maryland. 

“With so little progress made at the federal level,” conclude the legal experts, “state leaders should step up, demonstrate that their words have meaning, and support local legislation that will bring some justice and accountability to their own backyards.”

Read the entire op-ed by the legal experts here.