Ret. Deputy Chief Wayne Harris, chair of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, has written an op-ed for the Buffalo News blasting qualified immunity (QI). Harris argues that passing S 1991, the bill to end QI in the Empire State, will benefit New York police by getting rid of the barrier to public trust that prevents them from doing their job well.
“Qualified immunity claims to protect officers who have to make split-second decisions in difficult and dangerous situations,” notes Harris, addressing one of the persistent myths about the controversial doctrine. “I have been there in those moments, so I understand why—and agree—that officers need protections.” But, he clarifies, “it’s important for my fellow officers to know that judges and juries already tend to defer to our discretion, even without qualified immunity.” In essence, “split-second decisions will be assessed on their own merits, and litigation only goes to trial after a judge has determined that an action was unreasonable.”
Wayne Harris served with the Rochester, New York, police department (PD) for more than 30 years. As a longtime veteran of the force, he knows firsthand how QI gets in the way of good policing. Before retiring, Harris acted as deputy-in-chief in charge of community relations for the Rochester PD. Speaking directly with everyday citizens “reinforced what I had long suspected,” he says. That “communities need to trust the police in order for us to be able to help keep them safe.”
However, communities are unable to trust the police and other public officials—even the decent ones—as long as they are not held to the same standard of accountability as everyone else.
Thus, ending qualified immunity is a good thing for police officers, Harris explains, because “if people know that there will be ramifications if an officer acts unreasonably, they’re more likely to start trusting us again.”
Additionally, abolishing QI is the popular thing to do: recent statewide polling reveals that 58 percent of New Yorkers favor doing away with the unjust rule.
“As peace officers, we can and should be pillars of the community,” Wayne Harris concludes. “We must set an example by implementing real systems of accountability.” Passing S 1991 and doing away with qualified immunity in New York “is a great way to start building those systems.”
Read the entire Wayne Harris op-ed here.