SPRINGFIELD – State Rep. Curtis Tarver is a man on a mission to reform Illinois law enforcement by eliminating a special legal protection given cops.
The Chicago Democrat’s Bad Apples in Law Enforcement Accountability Act passed out of committee two weeks ago and awaits a vote in the House.
The measure aims to remove the court doctrine of qualified immunity for officers, which would open them up to civil litigation if they participate in the “deprivation of any individual rights” guaranteed in the Illinois Constitution.
The top priority of Illinois law enforcement groups is to defeat this measure said Ed Wojcicki, executive director at the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police.
Such opposition makes passage of the measure far from certain. Tarver added some of his counterparts in the legislature fail to see the urgency of the reform.
“Many of my colleagues will never have to be a black male worried about whether a traffic stop becomes the end of their life. That said, some do see the immediacy of the problem. Even though they may not experience this themselves, they recognize the problem,” he said.
Last year, Tarver, who is Black, was pulled over during a routine traffic stop. A Chicago cop asked if he had a gun with him. He said he did – along with a conceal carry permit.
Tarver ended up handcuffed, held for seven hours and not allowed to call his attorney. It took nine months for the charges against him to be dropped.
If police officers would treat a person who is a lawyer and a state representative this way, think how much worse it would be for an ordinary Joe.
In 2020, U.S. police officers fatally shot about 1,000 people. Black people were 2.5 times more likely to be killed than whites.
This is a national disgrace.
It is rare for police officers to face criminal charges even when they inappropriately use deadly force.
And qualified immunity makes it difficult to sue police officers even when they have violated a person’s constitutional rights, said Joanna Schwartz, a University of California – Los Angles law professor.
“Qualified immunity as the Supreme court has created it over the years is a really nonsensical and unjust defense,” she said. “It protects officers from being found liable in cases so long as, as the case law from the courts is not clearly established. What that means in practice is that there has to be a prior court decision with virtually identical facts in order for a plaintiff to get past the qualified immunity defense.”
For example, in a 2014 Nashville, Tenn., case police officers sicced a dog on a man sitting on the ground with his hands up. He sued for excessive force after being bitten. His lawyers cited a similar case in which a court had ruled against law enforcement after police had ordered a dog to attack a man lying on the ground.
But a Tennessee judge ruled qualified immunity protected the officers in the more recent case because in the earlier case the person was lying down and in the more recent case the man was sitting.
This sort of bogus, protect police officers at all costs, thinking leaves some believing they can get away with murder.
Look no further than what has been in the news this week.
A former Minneapolis police officer is on trial for the murder of George Floyd after kneeling on his neck for about nine minutes. Another Black Minnesotan was killed during a routine traffic stop after a cop apparently confused her pistol and taser. And a newly released video showed a Black Army officer being needlessly tear gassed by two Virginia police officers.
Tarver said by eliminating the qualified immunity defense, municipalities will be more selective in who they hire, less likely to succumb to union pressure when greater job protections are demanded and more likely to fire bad cops.
Last year, Colorado eliminated qualified immunity for police officers. Last month, the New York City Council voted to eliminate the special protection for cops. And earlier this month New Mexico ended qualified immunity for all government workers.
These are steps in the right direction. We need greater accountability in law enforcement.
Schwartz said the biggest misconception about eliminating qualified immunity is that it leaves individual police officers vulnerable to being bankrupt by lawsuits. She noted that in more than 99 percent of cases that she has studied in which qualified immunity was found not to apply, the municipality employing the officer paid the judgement, not the officer.
In the handful of cases in which individual officers were found liable, the average judgement was only $2,000, she said.
It’s time for Illinois lawmakers to protect its most vulnerable citizens by holding in check those who would misuse their authority.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area. Scottreeder1965@gmail.com