OPINION: Qualified immunity should no longer be given to U.S. law enforcement


Audrey Champelli | The DePaulia

Chicago Police Department 9th District station at 3120 S. Halsted St.

In the wake of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder trial, Americans need to realize that law enforcement officers should no longer be protected by qualified immunity. 

The summer of 2020 highlighted systemic racism that leads to police brutality without consequence. It should serve as a wake-up call that we should no longer tolerate the lack of legal repercussions. 

Buting, Williams, and Stillings S.C. criminal defense law firm states that the qualified immunity doctrine gives “the police and other government employees [immunity] from civil rights lawsuits if the illegality of their actions was not ‘clearly established’ at the time of the incident.”

Currently, over 85,000 officers in the U.S. have violated misconduct in the past decade — yet they are still on duty. How are we supposed to feel safe when we know that officers who have violated misconduct laws are walking our streets, and we may not know who they are?

Qualified immunity further drives the wedge in our divided society. However, this wedge specifically separates the police from the communities they should be protecting, including communities of color. Immunity further drives the unbalanced power dynamics between officer and citizen and has communities of color feeling more afraid than protected by the police. 

One of the ways power dynamics play out is through carrying weapons. An officer has legal authority to carry a dangerous weapon, stimulating fear tactics if they choose to wave their weapon out and about. The only difference between an officer and a citizen is the profession, so why should a career path define whether you can physically harm someone without consequence?

Chicago Police officers cross the street in downtown Chicago, Wednesday, April 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

It makes no sense for those who enforce the law to be immune from the law themselves. 

Lesli Napoles, a pre-law student at Washington State University, said she believes that this power imbalance between officers and citizens impacts communities of color more. 

“Minorities in general don’t trust the police,” Napoles said. “So when you give police officers immunity, on top of the long history of discrimination [against minorities], what’s holding the police accountable for the actions that have historically targeted, injured and killed minorities disproportionately? Of course the community won’t trust them.”

Not only does immunity impair this relationship, but people of color also have to consider whether personal bias or prejudice will be at play when interacting with law enforcement. 

Giving law enforcement immunity allows them to let their own personal biases flavor their action without any fear of reprisal,” said Demetrius Jordan, associate professor in DePaul’s Driehaus College of Business. “This helps to create a culture where you are only concerned with your own personal ideals, and not necessarily the ideals of the public you serve.”

Immunity also creates a false aura of justification for an officer’s actions. On March 29, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was killed by police in Chicago. However, instead of grieving the loss and expressing outrage for CPD’s irresponsibility and racism, some are trying to defend the officer’s actions and dehumanize Toledo. 

This victim-blaming narrative is an effect of police immunity. Instead of focusing on the issue of improperly trained officers, we try to justify their actions. 

“Victim blaming is a social condition of police immunity,” Napoles said. “If you can’t justify [an officer’s] actions through the law, then [society does] through the acts of the victim.”

“If law enforcement was required to be accountable to the people they serve, they may actually see the need to serve those people,” Jordan said. “Too many times, law enforcement doesn’t believe they serve communities of color, only that they police them. And communities of color feel the same way, causing law enforcement officers to be accountable to the communities would do a better job framing exactly what the responsibilities of police are.”

I believe that society will also tend to victim blame more if the victim is a person of color and the perpetrator is white. 

We currently see this occuring in Chauvin’s trial. Instead of focusing on Chauvin’s history of excessive force, the autopsy reports and expert testimonies, many focus on whether Floyd resisted or was violent towards Chauvin. 

How many times does the U.S. have to go back and forth trying to explain an officer’s actions? In order to create a more equitable society, we should be holding officers legally accountable for their civil rights violations. Nobody with a past of civic abuse should be allowed to claim to protect and serve. 

The Department of Justice said that for civil rights abuses, they will “[seek] to correct a law enforcement agency’s policies and practices that fostered the misconduct and, where appropriate, may require individual relief for the victim(s).”

Chauvin’s trial should be the wake up call for the U.S. to take this step towards a society where communities of color can feel protected too. Our current systems only serve to protect an elite few, and the rest are subjected to fear. Regardless of profession, race, age, class, etc., we do not deserve an untouchable police force.