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Supporters Push Bill To End Some Legal Immunity For Police In NY

New York State Senator Robert Jackson
Karen DeWitt
New York State Senator Robert Jackson

Supporters of a measure that would end some legal immunity for police officers who injure or kill a citizen during an arrest rallied at the New York State Capitol Wednesday. They say the practice, known as qualified immunity, gives bad cops too much protection.

Qualified immunity is a legal principle that gives government officials, like police, personal immunity from civil lawsuits when something goes wrong, unless a plaintiff in a case can prove that the officer deliberately violated their constitutional rights. 

Opponents say that puts the burden of proof on a person, or their surviving relatives, when someone is injured or killed during an encounter with police or while in police custody.  

Akeem Browder, is the brother of Kalief Browder, who committed suicide after being held in solitary confinement at Riker’s Island for two years for a crime he did not commit. Kalief Browder said he was assaulted by prison guards several times while he was in custody. Akeem Browder says because of qualified immunity, those guards cannot be held accountable. 

“They learn and they say ‘Hey, you can’t do anything to us anyway, so we’re going to keep on doing it to your brothers, your fathers, your mothers, your children,’” said Browder, who said he will keep fighting because he “cannot get over the fact that my brother isn’t coming home.”  

Other speakers included a former city of Albany police chief and one of the founders of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Jerry Greenfield. Greenfield is working on the national effort to end qualified immunity. 

“Ending qualified immunity is about accountability for police and justice for the victims whose rights have been violated,” said Greenfield. 

Greenfield says other states, including Colorado, New Mexico, Massachusetts and Connecticut have ended or limited qualified immunity, and the proposal is under discussion in around a dozen other states.    

The measure faces an uncertain future in the Democratic-led State Assembly as the legislative session winds down. 

Sponsor Pamela Hunt says the bill is currently in the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee.  

“The leadership is aware of our commitment to getting this bill closed before June 10,” said Hunter. “I’m pushing very much to make sure this gets to the top.”

In the Senate, also controlled by Democrats, the measure has the backing of the Deputy Majority Leader, Michael Gianaris. But its sponsor, Senator Robert Jackson, says passage before the session ends is not a guarantee. 

“The goal is to end it now,” said Jackson, who said if it does not win approval by the close of the session, he and the other advocates intend to keep the pressure on. 

“That’s what the struggle is about,” he said.    

Senator Jackson says he’s in it for the long haul. He was a plaintiff in the school aid funding legal challenge knowns as Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which took 13 years to wind its way through the courts, and was ultimately decided in his group’s favor.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.
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