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Qualified Immunity vs. De-escalation

Members of U.S. Congress are proposing legislation to limit qualified immunity for law enforcement. What qualified immunity means is that an officer can legally kill someone if he or she believes that they are in danger with no obligation to use less than lethal force to subdue someone or to de-escalate a confrontation. We need to examine the harm that qualified immunity needlessly causes. Qualified immunity, unfortunately, often has translated to allowing murder without accountability when unconscious racial bias alone means some see a person with dark skin as a threat. Note that qualified immunity does not require that the threat be real, only that the officer killing another person subjectively perceived a threat. How this has played out is that a police officer imposed a painful wrist hold and pulled a gun on an intoxicated Native American not bothering anyone and enjoying a hot dog at a fundraiser outside of the Riverton Walmart in 2019 and then shot him close range in the head because the victim was waving a knife, a situation the officer had escalated during the prior seven minutes. The officer had no obligation to back away from the knife. He had no obligation to use the taser that he carried with him instead of a gun. He could create a hostile situation and then use a gun to bring it to a deadly end without any accountability. What could have been is:

  • Instead of an armed uniformed officer responding, it could have been a public health worker.

  • Law enforcement trained about implicit racial bias and how to make more accurate judgments.

  • Law enforcement trained on how to de-escalate tense situations.

  • Law enforcement trained to use alternatives to guns when against someone without a gun.

The shooting at the Riverton Walmart in 2019 need not have happened. When it did happen, the officer should have been held accountable. What is needed now is a commitment to changes to assure us that it never happens again. That includes limiting qualified immunity.

Fear not. Be humble. Have faith. Be bold. Build relationships. Do justice.

Chesie Lee

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