Detroit area police leaders denounce efforts to ban qualified immunity

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — Law enforcement leaders from across southeast Michigan gathered Wednesday at the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office to speak out against proposals to do away with qualified immunity for police officers.

“There is a huge misunderstanding in Congress and by the public,” said Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, who hosted the event. “We aren’t saying that officers shouldn’t be held accountable — criminally or even civil damages — for not doing their job properly … but when all the proper procedures and best practices are being followed — everything is being done right — (qualified immunity) should apply.

Oakland County Sheriff, Michael J. Bouchard, gives his remarks during a press conference discussing qualified immunity for police officers at the Oakland County Sheriff's Office.

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Other participants included Livingston County Sheriff Michael J. Murphy; Macomb County Sheriff Anthony M. Wickersham; Grand Blanc Township Police Chief Ron Wiles, president of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police; Northville Police Chief Alan Maciag, president of the Southeastern Michigan Association Chiefs of Police; Wixom Chief of Police Ron Moore, president of the Oakland County Chiefs of Police, and Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett, president of the Oakland County Association of Township Supervisors.

The group gathered as Congress is discussing substantial changes to qualified immunity laws, which shield officers from lawsuits while carrying out their duties. This protection has come under scrutiny by legal scholars and others following George Floyd’s May 25, 2020, death and other incidents involving police officers. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death, and his family has received a record out-of-court wrongful death settlement.

L-r, Director Ron Moore Wixom Police Department, Grand Blanc Township Police Chief Ron Wiles and Northville Police Chief Alan Maciag listen during the press conference discussing qualified immunity for police officers at the ,Oakland County Sheriff's Office.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would make the most substantial federally ordered changes to policing in a generation. It would allow police officers to be sued and for damages to be awarded for violations of people’s constitutional rights.

Under legal immunity, courts have ruled lawsuits are only permitted when an officer violates a clearly established statutory or constitutional right.

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-California, who wrote the bill, said when the House approved it in March that its provisions limiting qualified immunity and easing standards for prosecution were “the only measures that hold police accountable — that will actually decrease the number of times we have to see people killed on videotape.”

The issue has become a sticking point in congressional discussions over the legislation, which President Joe Biden had hoped to sign before the first anniversary of Floyd’s death. The Senate, which the Democrats control by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote, has yet to vote on legislation.

Bouchard and other law enforcement leaders said the erosion of legal protections for police officers would seriously affect the ability of law enforcement to carry out its duties and impact government agencies on every level.

They proposed alternative reforms to increase accountability while still protecting officers who carry out their jobs professionally.

“I don’t think there is a police executive in the nation that saw Floyd’s death and not have seen it was wrong,” Bouchard said. “And other officers, who didn’t participate in the actual death, have been charged for not intervening or preventing it.

“Look at qualified immunity like a filter which a judge decides whether or not is entitled to an officer who did their job properly,” Bouchard said. “We have outlawed chokeholds in many of our departments — but officers were still being trained in it in Minneapolis. And we have policies in which it is an officer’s duty to intervene in a situation which is wrong.

“What we see happening (in police reform proposals) is a solution in search of a problem.”

Murphy, the Livingston County sheriff, agreed.

“This isn’t just a matter of deputies or police officers but also firefighters, health workers and others,” Murphy said. “This could potentially bankrupt some municipalities.”

Barnett, the Orion Township supervisor, said he also fears financial problems could result without qualified immunity.

“We are a small community in Oakland County but have policies and procedures in place,” Barnett said. “The sheriff’s office and others are held accountable, but some people look at government as having deep pockets. Removing protections will be critical and make it more difficult to recruit firemen, paramedics, health workers and others for important jobs that need to be done.”

Associated Press contributed.

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