House Dems renew call for police reform in aftermath of Breonna Taylor grand jury decision

By: - September 24, 2020 12:49 pm

A mural created by Braylyn Resko Stewart, Whitney Holbourn, and Andrew Thompson in Louisville, Ky. It depicts African Americans who have died at the hands of white law enforcement. | Jackson A. Coleman

Michigan Reps. Tenisha Yancey (D-Harper Woods), Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit), Cynthia Johnson (D-Detroit), and Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) Thursday renewed their call to end qualified immunity when applied to law enforcement excessive force cases.

“Unfortunately, some officers have abused this protection, using it as an impenetrable shield to escape justice when they commit heinous acts,” Yancey said.  

The Lansing press announcement came a day after a Kentucky grand jury indicted one of three police officers involved in the March 13 fatal shooting of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, although not for her death. Officer Brett Hankison was indicted on felony charges of wanton endangerment after shooting into an apartment next door to Taylor, an emergency medical technician. Taylor’s family and community activists had called for all three officers to be charged in her death. 

In July, Yancey and Carter, joined by Reps. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) and Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit), unveiled  a plan to improve policing in Michigan. Called “Equal Justice for All,” the bill package applies a four-pillar approach to transforming policing and public safety in Michigan to address systemic racial inequities and injustices.

The legislation would establish measures to increase accountability for law enforcement agencies and officers by creating an independent entity to investigate and prosecute excessive force cases, eliminating qualified immunity when officers use unreasonable force and prohibiting the use of facial recognition technology.

“In keeping with our plan to bring justice, transparency and accountability to Michigan’s criminal justice system, today we announce bills that will address a loophole that has perpetuated police brutality in Michigan,” Yancey added. “For decades, qualified immunity has insulated law enforcement from repercussions, even in instances where their actions violate a civilian’s constitutional rights or break the very laws they are sworn to uphold. This reform is long overdue.”

Qualified immunity protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a plaintiff’s rights, only allowing suits where officials violated a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right, according to a definition provided by Cornell University. The principle has been applied in legal cases involving police and civilians.

In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court introduced the qualified immunity doctrine in Pierson v. Ray. The case involved a group of white and Black Episcopalian priests who organized a peaceful protest at Tri-State Trailways, a segregated bus terminal in Jackson, Miss. in 1961. They were arrested and convicted for breach of peace under a state law later deemed unconstitutional. The group later sued the police officers and a judge for civil rights violations. The nation’s high court, in a majority opinion, held that an officer cannot be found personally liable for any conduct unless it can be proved that the officer deliberately violated one’s constitutional rights.

Carter, a retired Wayne County Sheriff’s deputy, said that passing the bill package will help to end police abuses.

“First and foremost, our criminal justice system must provide equal justice for all of us regardless of our ZIP code, social, economic, gender or race,” said Carter, “But in our Black communities, those who promise to serve and protect are essentially given a free pass when they abuse their power. The law applies to police officers, too. When they break the law, even in a minor offense, they should be held accountable. When a life is lost as a result of their neglect or abuse, they must assume liability so justice can be brought to the victims and their families.”

Leonard Mungo, a Detroit civil rights attorney who has handled many cases involving police excessive force, said eliminating qualified immunity is one way to end police brutality.

“Immunity, historically, has enjoyed favorable interpretations from the U.S. Supreme Court and now local courts,” Mungo said. “They have skewed the interpretation in favor of biased police officers.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.