Cory Booker Wants To End Qualified Immunity For Police Officers

Jun 7, 2020

As protests against police violence continue throughout the country, Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate are working on sweeping new federal legislation to combat police misconduct.

The bill, called the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, includes an array of measures intended to increase police accountability, data collection and training. Co-sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., the bill would ban the use of chokeholds, "no knock" warrants and religious and racial profiling.

"These are common sense changes that, frankly, will create a far greater level of accountability for those police officers who violate the law, who violate our rights and who violate our common community standards," Booker told NPR's Sarah McCammon on All Things Considered Sunday.

If enacted, it would also change the way police are held accountable in courts by eliminating qualified immunity, which shields public officials like police officers from being sued for actions that don't violate a clearly established statutory or constitutional right. In 2014, the Supreme Court heard two cases on qualified immunity and handed down two unanimous decisions upholding the legal doctrine.

"Qualified immunity is something that has evolved over time. It's not written into any law," Booker said. "But our highest courts in the land have decided that police officers are immune from civil cases, unless there's been specifically in the past a case of generally the exact circumstances that has led towards a successful action. ... It creates this bar towards civil action against a police officer for violating your civil rights."

Opponents to eliminating qualified immunity argue that police need protection from unnecessary lawsuits. But Booker says he thinks there should still be an option to allow citizens to open civil action against officers.

"I'm a big believer that police officers and towns and communities that employ them should protect them from frivolous lawsuits," Booker said. "But when it's so clear that an officer has violated community standards, department standards and the civil rights of Americans, that they should be open to civil action."

The measure comes just days after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asked the Congressional Black Caucus to draft legislation in response to the weeks-long protests that have erupted across the nation following the death of George Floyd.

"It is time for us to address the concerns that were being expressed by the protesters," Pelosi said Tuesday. "This is not a single incident. We know this is a pattern of behavior and we also know the history that brings us to this sad place."

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

As protests against police violence continue throughout the country, we're going to spend the first part of today's program talking about how politicians are trying to address that issue. A number of Democratic lawmakers are working on what is perhaps the most sweeping federal legislation to combat police misconduct. It's called the Justice in Policing Act, and it focuses on three areas - accountability, collecting data on misconduct and police training. If passed, it would ban the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants. It also would change the way police are held accountable in courts.

Here to tell us more about it is one of its sponsors, Cory Booker, a Democratic senator from New Jersey.

Senator Booker, welcome.

CORY BOOKER: Thank you for having me.

MCCAMMON: As we mentioned, your bill addresses a number of issues regarding police conduct, like banning racial and religious profiling and chokeholds. It also deals with how misconduct is treated legally, mainly through eliminating qualified immunity. As briefly as possible, can you explain what qualified immunity is and why you felt it was important to include it in this bill?

BOOKER: Well, qualified immunity is something that's evolved over time. It's not written into any law. But our highest courts in the land have decided that police officers are immune from civil cases unless there's been specifically in the past a case of generally the exact circumstances that has led towards a successful action. It in this sense creates this bar, practically, because you're never going to find often two cases that are so similar. It creates this bar towards civil action against a police officer for violating your civil rights.

MCCAMMON: There are some opponents of eliminating qualified immunity who argue police need some protection from frivolous lawsuits. Why not scale back qualified immunity rather than eliminate it altogether?

BOOKER: Of course, when a police officer is acting justly, in accordance with their training and community mandates, as a former mayor, we will represent those police officers, and there will be legal support for them. But when police officers have so egregiously violated the civil rights of individuals, there should be some kind of level of accountability through the civil courts.

MCCAMMON: And, Senator, of course, getting any kind of police reform proposal through Congress is going to require bipartisan cooperation. President Trump has described himself as a proponent of law and order. Just this morning, he tweeted, quote, "sleepy Joe Biden and the radical left Democrats want to defund the police. I want great and well-paid law enforcement. I want law and order" - end quote. It's clear the president is not exactly on board with police reform, or at least not the way that Democrats are framing it. How would you get the president and his party on board?

BOOKER: Well, first of all, I want to say that I'm having a lot of robust conversations with Republican senators who - parts of this bill they're already expressing interest in. Secondly, the president's going to try to center himself in this conversation. In many ways, he wants to make this a referendum on who he is and his values and beliefs. Well, to me, this is a referendum on us as a larger society about what we'll tolerate.

And while he'll try to weaponize the slogans of our protesters, remember that there has been no great movement of social justice - and I don't care if it's the labor movement, if it's the suffrage movement, if it's the civil rights movement - even movements for disability rights in this country have always had people in the streets leading, challenging the conscience of our country.

And so here is a president right now who is saying things that make him sound more like George Wallace than George Washington. He is demonstrating, like many have in the past during these other great movements, that he is going to do everything he can to resist them and to try to warp the truth and the love, frankly, inherent in the movements we're hearing.

MCCAMMON: You've endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden for president, of course. Do you think he's been vocal enough during this moment?

BOOKER: Absolutely. First of all, he has - I've had deeply personal conversations with him. I just feel that he understands - especially this larger presidential campaign as it evolved, I just feel like he understands that he is potentially going to be the leader in a moment like past leaders - like LBJ or John F. Kennedy or even Eisenhower. Or during times of integration, times of civil rights activists, that he could be a leader to help heal this country and bring us back together to a sense of common cause and common purpose.

And so from my heart of hearts - and the reason why I get very emotional about this is because I remember in the early 1990s being a college student who wrote an article in my - in the Stanford newspaper with tears in my eyes as I wrote in anger and rage at a man being beaten with over 50 blows by LAPD and then getting all those folks who beat him like an animal, trying to strip his dignity and humanity - how they were all found not guilty.

And I remember marching in that - in those days, and just feeling the sense of conviction that one day this would be over. And now here I find myself almost 30 years later teaching my nephews and my mentees survival skills. Enough is enough. This should not be a tradition in America, where elder African American men teach their children how to protect their black bodies from racism manifested in the most evil of ways, which is murder.

It's time for us to heal, and that's just not words or platitudes. We need to heal by changing laws and protecting each other and standing up for each other. And I know we can do that if we keep it up.

MCCAMMON: That's Cory Booker, Democratic senator from New Jersey.

Senator Booker, thanks so much for your time.

BOOKER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.