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What Is Qualified Immunity? And Why Do Some Want It Removed?

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- As the police reform debate takes center stage at the state and national level, one sticking point keeps coming up: Qualified immunity.

WCCO spoke about the issue with Maria Ponomarenko, associate professor of law at the University of Minnesota and co-founder of The Policing Project at New York University.

"It's a legal doctrine that was created by the United States Supreme Court," Ponomarenko said. "Even if an officer violates your constitutional rights, they're not going to be personally held liable. The officer won't have to pay if what the officer did, they reasonably thought was OK."

It's not that a police officer can't be sued, it's just extremely difficult. A person who feels an officer violated their rights, such as police brutality, must find an identical case to prove what the officer did to them was wrong. Otherwise, the officer gets qualified immunity.

"That ends up being an incredibly high bar to meet, and in practice it means that lots and lots of victims never recover," Ponomarenko said. "So we end up with kind of a shortage of accountability in the system. There aren't enough incentives for departments to reform."

The immunity is a form of protection other jobs that also have lives on the line don't get. So why are there some entities that want to keep qualified immunity?

"The argument that you get is basically that we don't want officers to hesitate," Ponomarenko said.

That could include an officer worrying about getting sued while in the midst of a high-stress situation.

New Mexico and Colorado have banned qualified immunity within the last year. New York City is the first municipality to do so. A bill at the Minnesota capitol aims to do the same. Some politicians, however, have suggested reforming it, where the responsibility shifts from the civilian filing the lawsuit to the officer being accused.

"Which is an officer can still get qualified immunity if they, you know, were reasonably told by a court or by a statute that what they're doing is fine. And otherwise, the officer or the agency that employs them would have to pay," Ponomarenko said.

Despite the difficulties surrounding qualified communities for plaintiffs, there are instances where they receive some compensation, often in the form of a settlement.

"Cities pay up because in most jurisdictions they indemnify officers. What that means is that cities will pay kind of on an officer's behalf," Ponomarenko said.

Click here for more information on the history of qualified immunity.

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