Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes is speaking out against recent congressional reform initiatives that involve eliminating qualified immunity, a law that grants government officials immunity from civil lawsuits as long as they were taking proper actions within the course of their duties.
“Peace officers make critical split-second decisions at the most difficult moments,” Barnes said in a May 11 statement posted to Twitter. “Qualified immunity provides officers and public service employees with assurance that taking proper actions in the course of their duties will not jeopardize their livelihood.”
The U.S. House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act March 3, which sought to end a number of law enforcement policies, including ending no-knock warrants, chokeholds, creating a national registry to track police misconduct, and ending qualified immunity.
The bill failed to pass in the senate, reportedly due to Republicans and Democrats disagreeing about qualified immunity.
Barnes said in his statement that qualified immunity is not absolute, meaning that current law does not stop individuals from suing law enforcement officers if they do violate a person’s constitutional rights.
“Those that act beyond their training or agency policy and willfully violate rights should be held accountable,” he said. “Our laws do, in fact, hold them accountable. Qualified immunity is specifically designed to protect good officers who are required to take necessary actions that are critical to community safety in high-risk situations.”
Eliminating qualified immunity for law enforcement would have major consequences for the field of policing, Barnes said, adding that policing is already one of the riskiest jobs available.
“The loss of qualified immunity would put good officers at risk and could hinder necessary action to save lives,” he said. “Additionally eliminating this protection will jeopardize the ability to attract, recruit, and retain talented peace officer applicants who are concerned about the liability associated with one of the most difficult and risky jobs in the world.”
He continued, “Similarly, proposals that shift civil liability to local municipal agencies would have the consequence of subjecting taxpayer funded public safety agencies to an excessive amount of frivolous lawsuits. Such a proposal lines the pockets of plaintiffs’ attorneys at the expense of local law enforcement.”
The sheriff urged residents to contact their U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators to ask them to oppose eliminating qualified immunity.