What is Qualified Immunity

In the United States, the doctrine of qualified immunity grants government officials performing discretionary functions immunity from civil suits unless the plaintiff shows that the official violated “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known”. It is a form of sovereign immunity less strict than absolute immunity that is intended to protect officials who “make reasonable but mistaken judgments about open legal questions”, extending to “all [officials] but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law”.

Qualified immunity applies only to government officials in civil litigation, and does not protect the government itself from suits arising from officials’ actions.

The history of law enforcement in the United States includes many efforts at police reform. Early efforts at police reform often involved external commissions, such as the Wickersham Commission, that spelled out reforms but left to the police to implement them, often with limited success.

A series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions under the Warren Court led to important changes in policing, with respect to civil rights and constitutional law. Mapp v. Ohio in 1961 and Miranda v. Arizona in 1966 were two highly influential court decisions. Mapp v. Ohio found that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” may not be used in criminal prosecutions. Miranda v. Arizona required that criminal suspects must be informed of their right to consult with an attorney and of their right against self-incrimination prior to questioning by police. These decisions began to set national standards for policing.

Special commissions, such as the Knapp Commission in New York City during the 1970s, have been used to bring about changes in law enforcement agencies. Civilian review boards (permanent external oversight agencies) have also been used as a means for improving police accountability. Civilian review boards tend to focus on individual complaints, rather than broader organizational issues that may result in long-term improvements.

In response to instances of police brutality, the United States Commission on Civil Rights suggested in 1981 that police departments enforce early intervention programs. The goal of these programs is to spot potentially risky behaviors within police departments, and to take preventative action to reduce instances of police misconduct. Although not required, many police departments have opted to adopt early prevention programs. However, the methods used to identify problematic police officers were found to be inefficient. The identifiers used often flag officers that in reality pose a minimal threat, while those that would benefit from additional oversight fly under the radar. To offset this, police departments have been using an increased number of indicators to determine risk factors.

The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act authorized the United States Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to bring civil (“pattern or practice”) suits against local law enforcement agencies, to reign in abuses and hold them accountable. As a result, numerous departments have entered into consent decrees or memoranda of understanding, requiring them to make organizational reforms. This approach shifts focus from individual officers to placing focus on police organizations.

Some law enforcement agencies in the United States in the early 2000s and 2010s began to emphasize de-escalation as a method of conflict resolution and obtaining voluntary compliance. There are also emphases on community policing to build relationships and community trust in law enforcement; the evidence-based policing approach of using of data to assist with decision-making; and the importance of civilian oversight of police work. Nonetheless, instances of misconduct and brutality have continued to occur. Many reforms related to the killing of George Floyd have been put forward

Resources and Articles:


Please continue the conversation by posting comments in our member section or submit a response below

Warning: A non-numeric value encountered in /home/customer/www/blacklivescoalition.com/public_html/wp-content/themes/campaign/inc/php/social-buttons.php on line 73
Skip to toolbar