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A disservice to the community: Against qualified immunity

<h5>The entrance to the Department of Public Safety.</h5>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The entrance to the Department of Public Safety.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Last July, the New Jersey State Assembly unanimously passed Bill A-4553, which would have granted qualified immunity to public-safety officers who patrol private institutions. The University’s Department of Public Safety (DPS), which, as of June 2019, employed 33 of the approximately 70 officers who work at private universities in New Jersey, offered testimony in support of the measure. Though the bill did not reach the floor of the State Senate, this Board finds the University’s advocacy for qualified immunity disturbing.

The doctrine of qualified immunity protects officers from liability if they violate a plaintiff’s rights, with the exception of cases in which they breach “‘a clearly established’ statutory or constitutional right.” By blocking avenues for legal recourse, qualified immunity renders citizens’ constitutional rights meaningless.

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Qualified immunity was first invoked in a 1967 Supreme Court case, Pierson v. Ray, to shield white police officers from a lawsuit they faced for enforcing segregation. Today, it continues to be used to protect officers who engage in horrific acts of abuse, often towards people of color.

In 2004, Malaika Brooks, a black woman who was seven months pregnant, was driving her 11-year-old son to school in Seattle when she was pulled over for speeding. When she refused to sign the speeding ticket, fearing that doing so would be an admission of guilt, the officers demanded she get out of her car. After she refused, they tased her three times, dragged her across the street, and placed her in handcuffs.

Brooks sued the officers for use of excessive force, but her case was dismissed. The judges admitted that the officers had used excessive force, but, citing qualified immunity, concluded the officers could not have known their actions amounted to a constitutional violation. This is just one of countless examples.

In his testimony before the State Assembly, DPS Executive Director Paul Ominsky defended qualified immunity, which already applies to DPS officers in their interactions with students and other “beneficiaries” of the University. He argued the doctrine should also apply to officers’ interactions with non-affiliates on campus, because DPS officers require the same legal privilege as “local police officers with whom they work side-by-side.”

Indeed, we do take DPS officers as seriously as their counterparts. We stand against qualified immunity for campus police, as well as for all other officers. As Ominsky said himself, at a town hall hosted yesterday by Whig-Clio and Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR), “officers should be held accountable.” 

Other supporters contend that qualified immunity allows law enforcement to “perform the discretionary functions of their job without fear of liability.” There are scenarios, they argue, in which an officer might need to exercise force to uphold public safety, and the fear of facing a lawsuit might prevent them from doing so.

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Yet, studies show that police officers rarely think about the possibility of getting sued while performing their jobs. As Micah Herskind ’19 told The Appeal last August, “you only need immunity for police violence if you plan on allowing for police violence.”

Strengthening the relationship between the community and the Public Safety Officers who exist to protect us is essential to keeping campus safe for all, a point the officers repeatedly emphasized at last night’s town hall. Qualified immunity only tilts the balance of power away from the community, fraying this crucial bond.

This Board opposes qualified immunity on principle and finds no reason for the University to support the expansion of this practice. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76, qualified immunity “renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow” and “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.”

144TH EDITORIAL BOARD

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Chair

Zachariah W. Sippy ’22

Members

Benjamin Ball ’21

Shannon E. Chaffers ’22

Rachel Kennedy ’21

Kate Lee ’23

Madeleine Marr ’21

Jonathan A. Ort ’21

Elizabeth Parker ’21

Emma Treadway ’22

Ivy Truong ’21

Cy Watsky ’21

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