Images of the Minnesota police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck have flooded our timelines and our thoughts. Another inhumane murder ingrained onto the forefront of America’s brain. Where is the recourse? While the officers involved in Floyd’s murder are currently facing charges, this is highly atypical as hundreds of situations involving excessive police force go unprosecuted. Closer to home, Atlanta police officer Garrett Wolfe is now facing 11 charges in the fatal shooting of Rashard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot. Public anger has sparked demands for justice in cities across the nation.
Many activists and legal scholars across the country are calling for an end to police immunity, which would make police officials and government entities liable for money damages in civil court. As it currently stands, police immunity protects government officials from civil suits for actions (e.g. killing an unarmed suspect) performed in their official capacity. This immunity can be applicable in a vast array of circumstances in either a civil or criminal matter. The United States Supreme Court and many lower courts rule in favor of police immunity in most cases. The rationale seems to be that if the officer is enforcing the law in good faith and with probable cause then that officer or department should not face any legal liability. This rationale has been interpreted to excuse the most egregious of police conduct including the killing of unarmed suspects. The majority of these suspects being black males.
The current interpretation of police immunity is a big problem. While prosecuting abusive police officers is a major step in the right direction, it is not enough. The threat of prison must be accompanied by the threat of serious financial restitution to the victims or their families. Government leaders will be more likely to punish violent police officers and provide training for safer police encounters when that officer’s actions can cost the city millions of dollars.