Letter: Qualified immunity widely misunderstood

To the Editor

We are writing to voice our disapproval of Wisconsin 2021 Assembly Bill 186, relating to the elimination of qualified immunity for law enforcement. Qualified immunity is a very important protection for law enforcement.

Our membership feels that there is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding about qualified immunity. Qualified immunity does not protect dirty cops, qualified immunity protects good officers trying to do the right thing. Qualified immunity does not apply if an officer violates a clearly established constitutional right.

Officers can encounter a limitless amount of scenarios throughout the course of their shift, and it is impossible for officers to know in every circumstance, without a doubt, that their actions are constitutional. Qualified immunity allows officers to do what they believe to be right.

Qualified immunity does not prevent someone from receiving judgments from law enforcement agencies. There are plenty of examples of citizens across the nation receiving settlements from law enforcement agencies. The elimination of qualified immunity would just change who pays the settlement.

The elimination of qualified immunity for law enforcement would be extremely detrimental to our community and department. Consider a hostage or active shooter situation. A responding officer arrives on scene, and runs to the sound of gunfire because they want to save lives. The officer engages the active shooter, eliminating the threat, however, a bystander is injured in the process. Under qualified immunity, the individual officer is protected because he acted in good faith. Without qualified immunity, the officer could be held personally liable and lose their home, vehicle, children’s education fund, retirement, etc.

A more common situation would be a suspicious person. Imagine an officer patrolling an alley late at night. There have been a lot of burglaries in this neighborhood and an officer observes someone entering a garage wearing dark clothing. Is this the burglar? Or is this a different person who believes their rights were violated by you stopping them, when you were only trying to do the right thing and apprehend a burglar?

There are no laws requiring an officer to act in either of these situations. Officers want to save lives and protect property, however, they would be risking their financial wellbeing. Officers would have to decide if stopping someone from committing a crime against someone they never met is more important than their house, their vehicle, their retirement, their family’s financial wellbeing, or their children’s education fund. Many officers would simply not act without the protections of qualified immunity. Do we want officers patrolling our streets who are afraid to do their job?

Our department would lose many members to other professions and we would go from being proactive to simply taking reports of crimes after they occurred. Not many people are willing to risk losing everything they’ve worked for by simply doing their job.

We are all for improving the law enforcement profession but the elimination of qualified immunity would severely hurt our profession and the communities we serve.

Every year, our department (and departments across the state) gets fewer and fewer applicants for open officer positions. Law enforcement has been under increased scrutiny and is no longer attracting large numbers of applicants. With the loss of qualified immunity, the number of applicants will be even lower.

Our community deserves to have the best professionals patrolling our streets serving our community. Ending qualified immunity would have a large impact on finding and hiring the most qualified candidates.

We ask that you support us and our community by voicing your opposition to 2021 Assembly Bill 186.

Stevens Point Police Officer’s Organization
Andrew Poeschel, President

Send your open letter to [email protected]

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