Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, questions about police use of force have been at the forefront of national debate and have sparked violent protests as well as calls to defund or drastically reform law enforcement agencies across the country.
In a move sure to anger many on the left, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal in a case that would have addressed the permissible scope of the “qualified immunity” legal defense, commonly used to protect police accused of excessive force or brutality from lawsuits stemming from their official conduct, as Reuters reported.
The case at issue was that of Shase Howse, a Cleveland man who accused officers in his hometown of slamming him to the ground at a residence he shared with his mother back in 2016. Howse is Black, and the officers involved in the incident are white.
According to Howse’s account of the events, officers also struck him in the neck and took him to jail, claiming that he had acted suspiciously. He was ultimately charged with two felony assault charges and one misdemeanor charge of obstructing official business, all of which were later dismissed.
In 2020, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the officers’ argument that they were entitled to qualified immunity with regard to their encounter with Howse, finding that there was no “clearly established” precedent that would render their conduct unlawful.
Police reform activists argue that the doctrine of qualified immunity facilitates the use of excessive or even fatal force against civilians by ensuring that officers will not face lawsuits as a result, even if a court deems their conduct unconstitutional.
Law enforcement advocates, however, assert that qualified immunity protections are what allow police officers to make the kinds of split-second decisions required in many of the highly dangerous situations they face on a daily basis.
As Reuters notes, the Supreme Court has shown some signs of a shifting attitude on the issue of qualified immunity, with justices last year permitting inmates to sue on claims that prison guards violated their Eighth Amendment rights. For its part, the Democrat-led U.S. House of Representatives last week passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a bill which would alter the applicability of the qualified immunity defense and ban police use of chokeholds, among other things.
With the eyes of the world now fixed on the Minneapolis trial of former officer Derek Chauvin in Floyd’s death, it seems all but certain that the controversies surrounding police use of force and qualified immunity will not be going away anytime soon. Let’s just hope, whatever the outcome, that the verdict does not lead to a repeat of the violence and destruction witnessed last summer.