Honoring George Floyd by Demanding an End to Qualified Immunity

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Tomorrow marks exactly one year since four Minnesota police officers—Derek Chauvin, Thomas Lane, J. Kueng, and Tou Thao—murdered George Floyd. After apprehending Floyd for the suspicion of using counterfeit money, Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds. Floyd’s last cries for his mother and “I can’t breathe” served as a lighting rod for a summer of protests across the country. But for Black and Brown communities, who experience racist police violence every day, it was just another tragedy in a long line of injustice their community has witnessed at the hands of racist police. As we mark the anniversary of another senseless death, we must come together to abolish qualified immunity and demand police accountability.

Eric Garner uttered those very same words, “I can’t breathe,” when a police officer killed him using a prohibited chokehold in 2014. Floyd’s death followed the death of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician, shot in her own bed in Louisville, KY by plain-clothes police executing a no-knock warrant. Police kill a Black person at least once every other day in the U.S. and police violence is a leading cause of death in Black men. Despite this documented epidemic of violence, police are rarely held accountable, even in cases where the officers are arrested for murder or manslaughter while on-duty.

One reason for that is qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is the legal doctrine that shields police officers from accountability and allows them to avoid prosecution in cases of excessive use of force on community members. Victims of police brutality are prevented from suing in civil court unless they can prove that both the officer used excessive force and that the officer should have known it was against the law. But apparently they should only know if it was against the law if there has been an identical case. Since no two cases are exactly alike, this is an impossible standard, even though everyone should know that shooting an unarmed child is wrong. 

Every single person in our community deserves to be safe from police violence and to be treated fairly and equally under the law. When police officers can use excessive force on anyone at any time with impunity, no one can feel safe. This is especially true for Black and Brown members of our community, who are more likely to be targeted by police officers. 

We have an enormous responsibility this November to elect leaders who will protect our community by taking up meaningful criminal justice reform. Republican candidate for Governor Glenn Youngkin promises to veto any police reform bills and says that he is against banning qualified immunity. He wants to “keep our communities safe.” Exactly whose communities does he want to protect? 

Banning qualified immunity is a small first step towards holding police accountable. We have a lot more work to do to get justice for George Floyd and the countless others who have lost their lives. But we will keep working until not one more person is killed by police.