Stepped up efforts on police reform in Washington, D.C. are threatening Qualified Immunity

Violence and shootings are on the rise. The daily news is full of stories about cities and towns throughout New Jersey experiencing an alarming rise in violence and crime. Making matters worse, these violent offenders end up in our jails, which are more dangerous than ever.

As law enforcement officers we are risking our lives more than ever before on every shift as violence escalates around us. We are under attack.

But we are not only under attack on the streets and in the jails, we are also being attacked in the halls of Congress. The issue is proposed police reform and individual protections provided by qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity protects us from liability in civil suits. Overhauling qualified immunity by taking away individual protections for law enforcement officers is a serious threat to our livelihood. Without the protections provided by qualified immunity, a split-second decision while performing our jobs – a job that is already inherently dangerous – can also end up costing us everything we own in a civil lawsuit.

Taking away qualified immunity on an individual basis is unfair and overly punitive. It will further erode an already deteriorating morale among our ranks and hamper efforts to recruit diverse and highly qualified law enforcement officers in the future.

Nonetheless, President Joe Biden used his first address before a joint session of Congress on April 28 to draw attention to police reform legislation. The president pushed Congress to pass legislation by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death.

“I know Republicans have their own ideas and are engaged in productive discussions with Democrats in the Senate. We need to work together to find a consensus but let us get it done next month by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death,” Biden said during his speech.

While lawmakers have made no commitments on timing, Congress has reengaged on the issue of police reform with qualified immunity for law enforcement officers being a major sticking point.

The lead negotiators on police reform legislation are our own New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, Senator Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina and Representative Karen Bass, a Democrat from California. This group has broadened recently in a bi-partisan effort to move negotiations along. The additional representatives involved in meetings in late April included New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania.

Senator Booker told reporters at the end of April that he thought a compromise could be reached. “I think we are making progress and I’m really encouraged,” he said. At the same time, many Republicans do not support taking away individual law enforcement officer’s qualified immunity.

NJ State PBA President Pat Colligan and I have been working with the National Association of Police organizations (NAPO) to closely monitor negotiations on police reform in Washington, D.C. With help from our allies, we are focused on protecting individual qualified immunity for our members. Along with Pat and I, PBA Director of Government Affairs Rob Nixon is also monitoring any state-wide efforts in Trenton or municipal governments to take qualified immunity away from law enforcement.

The most recent compromise on qualified immunity being talked about would leave protections for individual law enforcement officers intact but make law enforcement agencies liable in civil suits. The liability would ultimately be on employers and not individual officers.

All law enforcement officers acting on training and according to procedure should not be punished in performance of our difficult and dangerous jobs. The fear of making a mistake on our job should not mean risking everything, including one’s home.

In closing, on behalf of Pat, myself and the entire State PBA, we send our thoughts and prayers to the family of Perth Amboy Local 13 member Arcadio Rivera Jr., a 26-year veteran, who was lost in vehicle crash in April.

As always, stay safe and remember to always look out for each other.