The reason that police can get away with literally murder is because of a doctrine known as ‘qualified immunity’ that gives wide latitude to police actions taken during the course of their duties. Furthermore, even when they do get sued and fines are levied, the city pays the fines, giving them even more reason to not feel constrained.
Qualified immunity is a judicially created doctrine that shields government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations—like the right to be free from excessive police force—for money damages under federal law so long as the officials did not violate “clearly established” law.
[Q]ualified immunity opponents contend that the Harlow Court got the balance wrong. Justice Sonia Sotomayor—who has called qualified immunity a “one-sided approach” that “transforms the doctrine into an absolute shield for law enforcement officers”—captures the core of that critique in a recent opinion, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined. As Sotomayor put it, qualified immunity “sends an alarming signal to law enforcement officers and the public. It tells officers that they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”
But the state of Colorado has removed qualified immunity and now police are personally liable if they commit egregious acts of violence. As a result of what happened to a family of women in Aurora, a lawsuit will be a good test of what the change implies.
When Brittney Gilliam left her house in Aurora, Colorado, one day last August, all the 29-year-old wanted to do was take her daughter, younger sister, and two teenage nieces to get their nails done. They’d been cooped up for months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and when businesses finally started to open up, she planned a “Sunday funday.”
But the family soon found themselves in a strip mall parking lot surrounded by police officers with guns drawn, demanding they get out of Gilliam’s vehicle. The girls—ages 17, 14, 12, and 6—all ended up facedown on the pavement of a local parking lot, while Gilliam was handcuffed and put in the back of a squad car. It would be another two hours before officers realized they’d wrongly identified the family’s SUV as stolen.
Five months later, Gilliam has sued the five officers who conducted the stop that day, putting each cop on the hook for up to $20,000. And she just might win; Colorado recently became the first state to get rid of its “qualified immunity” statute, which made it nearly impossible to hold individual officers accountable for wrongdoing.
If Gilliam’s suit succeeds—and the officers have to pay out of their own pockets—the case could signal to other states and lawmakers that reforming protections for cops is worth their time.
Let’s hope this starts a nationwide trend to end qualified immunity or at least place very stringent limits on its application. Then we might see less things like that above or what happened in Rochester, New York when police pepper sprayed a nine-year old child who was already handcuffed.
Outrage erupted and the phrase “She’s 9” was trending on social media early Monday after body-cam video footage emerged of police in Rochester, New York violently abusing a 9-year-old girl—including handcuffing her and then pepper-spraying her in the face while in the back of a cruiser.
“This is your last chance, or pepper spray’s going in your eyeballs,” one female officer tells the young girl, handcuffed and sitting on the edge of the police car’s back seat during events that took place Friday.
According to reporting, the police had responded to a family dispute but what resulted was a horrifying scene of multiple officers abusing a clearly traumatized and emotionally distressed young girl.
“I want my dad,” the girl can be heard crying to the female officer. The girl later says, “No! You said you were gonna pepper-spray me. No, please, stop!”
Subsequently and from the other side of the cruiser a separate officer can be heard saying, “Just pepper spray her at this point.” Moments later, the hand of a male officer whose body camera is recording the situation can be seen reaching out with a can of pepper spray and says “Here.” As the young girl begins screaming and asking the police repeatedly to “Please wipe my eyes, please!” the male officer announces, “I got her. I got her.”
As the Times notes, the incident on Friday “has brought renewed scrutiny to the Rochester Police Department, months after the city was roiled by the disclosure that Daniel Prude, a Black man, suffocated to death last year after Rochester police officers had placed him in a hood.”
Later in the day, Mike Mazzeo, president of the Rochester Police Locust Club, held a press conference where he defended the officers’ actions and even went so far to say that the young victim could have been hurt worse if they had acted differently.
That is typically the attitude of police union officials, to say “What are you whining about? She wasn’t shot dead, was she” Though if she had been shot dead, he would still say it was justified.
Here is video of the incident.
She’s 9 years old. She was pepper sprayed. This is the state of police in our country. pic.twitter.com/sADh0olPLy
— Police Brutality Tracker (@pdbrutality) February 1, 2021
Notice that there seems to be at least five police officers on the scene to deal with a child having a breakdown and they still felt they had to pepper spray her.