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U. no longer pursuing extension of qualified immunity to PSAFE officers

Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

The University is no longer seeking to extend civil immunity protections to Department of Public Safety (DPS, PSAFE) officers, according to Deputy University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss. Assistant Vice President for Public Safety Paul Ominsky testified last year before the New Jersey State Assembly in favor of expanding immunity protections for campus police officers.

The University’s decision comes as protests against police brutality and structural racism sweep the United States. On May 25, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, killed George Floyd, sparking nationwide outrage.

The legal doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from facing lawsuits for actions undertaken in an official capacity and only allows suits in cases “where officials violated a ‘clearly established’ statutory or constitutional right.”

When ruling whether to uphold qualified immunity, courts consider “whether a hypothetical reasonable official would have known that the defendant’s conduct violated the plaintiff’s rights.” Supporters of the doctrine say it is necessary for police officers to perform their jobs without fear of being sued, while opponents have argued that the doctrine shields officers from accountability for instances of police brutality and excessive force.

Since the high-profile killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers in Minneapolis and Louisville, several lawmakers have called for an end to qualified immunity.

The civil immunity protections currently available to PSAFE officers fall under the Charitable Immunities Act, and apply only to the officers’ interactions with students and other “beneficiaries” of the University. For officers’ interactions with non-affiliates on campus, the protections do not apply.

In June 2019, Ominsky testified before the New Jersey State Assembly in favor of a bill that would have expanded immunity protections for public safety officers at private educational institutions, including PSAFE officers. 

“Campus police officers serve a public purpose and should be eligible for the same immunity protections as the local officers with whom they work side-by-side,” Ominsky said at the time.

Though the bill passed in the State Assembly unanimously, it “died in committee” in the New Jersey Senate and was never enacted, according to legislative tracking service LegiScan.

Members of Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) had previously advocated against both the doctrine of qualified immunity and Ominsky’s stance. The American Whig-Cliosophic Society and SPEAR hosted a town hall in March with several PSAFE officers including Ominsky where the issue was discussed. 

MiKayla Green ’22 and Mohammad Al-Mohimine ’23, co-leaders of SPEAR’s Policing in Princeton Committee, wrote in a statement to The Daily Princetonian that earlier this spring, “PSAFE held strong to their previous support for civil immunity seemingly more in defense of their livelihood as police officers than the potential harms to the community members that they swear they want to protect.”

Hotchkiss told the ‘Prince’ that the University is no longer pursuing the expansion of immunity protections to PSAFE officers in an email statement on Thursday. 

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“The University is not pursuing the issue of immunity,” he wrote. 

Green and Al-Mohimine wrote they are glad the University has come to this decision. 

They added, however, “It’s unfortunate that it took a man to be murdered by police, a country in uproar about it, and the Supreme Court’s ‘reconsideration’ of civil immunity for PSAFE to finally come to terms with the dangerous and destructive implications that come with civil immunity.”

“While we do commend them for taking a step back from qualified immunity, we should not forget what it took for PSAFE to withdraw their support,” Green and Al-Mohimine added. 

Hotchkiss noted that the University has appreciated the engagement and feedback from the community on the issue of immunity, referencing the SPEAR town hall this spring.

Instead of pursuing the extension of immunity, Hotchkiss wrote, the University “will focus on the principles and initiatives outlined by the governor and attorney general” in a June 2 announcement, which included updates on initiatives designed to strengthen trust between police officers and the communities they serve.  

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal noted in this June 2 announcement that “long before this week’s protests, we committed ourselves to making New Jersey a national leader in policing reform. And we’re in this for the long haul, not because it’s easy or popular, but because it’s the right thing to do.”

Specifically, the announcement pointed to reforms being made as an outgrowth of a policy Grewal announced in Dec. 2019. According to the announcement, New Jersey will “launch a pilot program” to begin expanding “Crisis Intervention Team'' training and propose a statewide program for certifying police officers. 

The state has also created a statewide use of force portal, which it hopes to “begin expanding” statewide in July, as well as plans to create a Division on Civil Rights Incident Response Team in the months ahead, and Grewal announced that he will issue a directive to revise and update the Attorney General’s Office’s use-of-force policy for the first time in two decades by the end of 2020.

“We welcome the initiatives announced June 2 by Gov. Phil Murphy and Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal to strengthen the relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” Hotchkiss wrote.

Hotchkiss added that “DPS remains committed to the philosophy of ‘Community Caretaking’ and working with our students, staff and faculty to build the lasting partnerships necessary to keep our community safe.”

“The University and DPS condemn a system of law enforcement where people of color die unjustly at the hands of the police,” Hotchkiss wrote. “No one in police custody should die due to the actions or inaction of officers.”

In a memo to students on Friday, June 5, Dean of the College Jill Dolan noted that “At President Eisgruber’s request, we’re working now with faculty and staff to pull together intellectual, academic, and other resources to plan for Princeton-specific actions,” directing students to contact the University with ideas.

Green and Al-Mohimine also noted their view that reforms such as those being proposed by Murphy and Grewal “only act as bandages to cover the bigger problem at hand.”

“America has been plagued with systemic racism since the founding of this country and the failures of the police department are a symptom of this disease. We must work proactively to deal with the issue of systemic racism and only then can the racial injustices within the police department come to an end,” they wrote, reiterating their commitment to “continue to push for the abolition of police violence in whatever form possible.” 

Murphy and Grewal’s announcement does not mention the practice of qualified immunity, which is a federal legal doctrine created by the Supreme Court.

The Court is expected to review multiple cases involving qualified immunity in the coming days. Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 wrote in a 2018 dissent that the Court’s approach in qualified immunity cases “transforms the doctrine into an absolute shield for law enforcement officers” and that an opinion granting an Arizona police officer qualified immunity in one excessive force case allowed officers to “shoot first and think later.”

Over the past week, a number of lawmakers have called for the termination of qualified immunity through legislation.

U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), and 2018 Class Day speaker and honorary University alumnus Cory Booker (D-N.J.) announced a resolution on Wednesday calling for the elimination of qualified immunity for law enforcement officers. Similarly, Libertarian Congressman Justin Amash (L-Mich.) and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) have introduced the “Ending Qualified Immunity Act” in the House of Representatives. 

“The brutal killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police is merely the latest in a long line of incidents of egregious police misconduct,” Amash noted in his announcement. “This pattern continues because police are legally, politically, and culturally insulated from consequences for violating the rights of the people whom they have sworn to serve. That must change.”

In a Q&A on Wednesday with Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), who represents the district containing Princeton, the ‘Prince’ asked if she would co-sponsor such legislation. Coleman said she had not read the bill yet, “but if it accomplishes transparency and accountability on the part of law enforcement as it continues to hurl its brutality upon the African American community, then I could possibly co-sponsor.”

Editor’s Note: The Daily Princetonian’s Editorial Board recently published a piece calling on the University to alter its stance on qualified immunity. The News Section and Editorial Board of the ‘Prince’ operate independently of one another, and no members of the Editorial Board contributed to the writing or editing of this piece.

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