Qualified Immunity: The Protection of Police Discretion in America

An Op Ed by Cult Classic co-owner Joe Pitts:


We have all seen and/or felt recent expressions of anger and frustration for the decisions not to indict those accused of homicide in these high profile police cases that have been garnering a lot of attention lately. I think a lot of the frustrations are legitimate, but some of it may be misguided, and we should talk about the institutions and conditions that may be conducive to this behavior. I would like to direct everyone's attention to the concept of "Qualified Immunity" that our Supreme Court has continued to uphold, even in its most recent term with multiple decisions affirming the legitimacy of the doctrine.

Essentially, the doctrine of qualified immunity shields agents of government from prosecution for unlawfully violating another individual's constitutional rights (i.e killing them) so long as that agent did not violate "clearly established law" at the time of the act. You might be saying to yourself, "of course shooting or choking an unarmed man must be a violation of clearly established law, right?", but the law is a strange, muddy concept. If you look at the myriad of decisions concerning this issue, you'll see that it's actually frighteningly easy for an agent of the government to get away with conduct that any regular citizen would not be able to. I think this is a problem. Do not get me wrong: I believe it is important that officers of the law maintain the ability to exercise discretion to act accordingly when they perceive a threat in order to protect themselves and others. But when you have a concept on the books that is essentially a "get out of jail free" card for those who are supposed to protect us (and many do!), it is not surprising that we are seeing systemic abuse of the doctrine.

Joe Pitts