Police unions decry reform bill

  • Springfield police supervisors union President Brian Keenan speaks Tuesday at a press conference where he decried state lawmakers’ recent efforts to change qualified immunity in the state. STAFF PHOTO/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Staff Writer
Published: 7/23/2020 5:25:59 PM
Modified: 7/23/2020 5:25:57 PM

SPRINGFIELD — Standing shoulder to shoulder, wearing face masks and folding their arms, 32 police officers stood behind Springfield police supervisors union President Brian Keenan on Tuesday as he decried state lawmakers’ recent efforts at police reform.

Inviting state legislators to ride along with Springfield police, Keenan said the experience would cause them to rethink a once-obscure legal doctrine that is now at the center of legislative efforts at criminal justice reform.

“I guarantee you would remove all references to ‘qualified immunity’ from your efforts,” Keenan said.

The group held a press conference Tuesday to present an open letter from 42 area police unions to state lawmakers. The event comes a week after the state Senate passed a police reform bill, with the state House taking up its own version as early as Wednesday. In particular, the police unions focused much of their attention on the Legislature’s efforts to restrict how police can claim “qualified immunity” — a legal doctrine that protects government employees from personal liability in civil lawsuits.

Qualified immunity was the result of a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, and was intended to protect government employees from frivolous litigation. However, it has increasingly been used to shield police from civil lawsuits over use of force or killings.

In the police reform bill passed in the state Senate last Tuesday, a provision would allow those civil lawsuits to move forward if an officer reasonably should have known their actions broke the law. The House version of the bill, which just passed out of committee, ties qualified immunity to a newly created licensing process and revokes immunity if a police officer’s actions result in them being decertified.

Police in the state have voiced opposition to those provisions, whereas civil libertarians and social justice advocates have said they would provide much-needed accountability to law enforcement in the state.

In their letter, the region’s police unions alleged that the “erosion” of qualified immunity would cause them to hesitate in dangerous situations. They also claimed the bill would create a logjam in state courts, and that there “is not a single documented instance of qualified immunity protecting the wrongful conduct of a police officer.”

Manuel Rivera, the president of the Holyoke patrolmen’s union, spoke about his upbringing in the city, where he said drug dealing and shootings were not uncommon in his neighborhood. He described police work as an opportunity that allowed him, a Latino resident of the city, to make a better life for his family, and said he worried that changing qualified immunity would keep others from following that same path for fear of facing a lawsuit.

“Now, they’re not only thinking, ‘I’m losing my house I’m losing everything, but I may be going to jail,’” Rivera said in an interview.

However, advocates of changing qualified immunity have argued that the doctrine as it stands can deny the public accountability when it comes to police misconduct.

Bill Newman, the director of the regional office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that, under current law, there has to be a court case that establishes that an officer’s exact behavior is illegal. Often, that’s a difficult bar to clear, he said.

“There has to be an almost identical case in which it has been established that an action is illegal,” Newman said. “Even if what the officer has done is clearly illegal. It is, in other words, a defense to unlawful acts.”

Newman cited a handful of lawsuits in Massachusetts that have been dismissed due to qualified immunity. They include a case in Athol, Gray v. Cummings, in which a woman receiving treatment for bipolar disorder in 2013 wandered away from her hospital and was shocked with a Taser by a police officer when she refused to voluntarily give the officer her hands for handcuffing.

Newman also noted that many lawyers will decline to take on cases when they know an officer will be able to successfully claim qualified immunity.

“The reform of qualified immunity will go a long way to reducing the kind of policing that everyone, including the police themselves, want to stop,” Newman said. “The lawsuit, or the potential for the lawsuit, is the enforcement mechanism.”

What’s more, Newman said, concerns about individual officers facing financial burdens from civil lawsuits are unfounded because police departments indemnify their officers, meaning that it is taxpayers who are on the hook for any judgments or settlements resulting from those lawsuits.

For example, earlier this year the city of Holyoke paid a $65,000 settlement in a federal civil rights lawsuit that accused city police of beating a 12-year-old boy unconscious in 2014.

The state Senate version of the police reform bill made no mention of doing away with indemnifying police officers with taxpayer money.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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