Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, helped launch a national campaign last month to allow Americans to sue police officers who kill, shoot or abuse someone in the line of duty.
The co-founders brought that message Monday during a virtual press conference to support legislation sponsored by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery County) to end qualified immunity, a U.S. Supreme Court doctrine to ensure officers aren’t held liable unless another officer has been found guilty in a similar situation.
“This is not just a Black problem. This is a white problem and for too long, too many white people have sat on their hands while Black people are beating and killed by bad cops,” Cohen said. “Today is a new day. We, white people, the people who authorized the police to use lethal force in our name. Either we are racist by tacitly allowing this travesty to continue, or we can be anti-racist and use our power to put an end to it.”
The Police Qualified Immunity and Accountability Act, which can be viewed at https://bit.ly/3qoQIyC, would allow civil suits against police officers by a victim or a victim’s family, as well as for jurisdictions to recoup officer’s pensions.
A person may not file a suit if the “physical or mental injury…did not rise above ordinary negligence, was not outside the scope of law enforcement training and standards, or did not constitute misconduct.”
Three victims of police brutality spoke in support of the legislation. One was Marion Gray-Hopkins, mother of Gary Hopkins Jr., who was killed by Prince George’s County police in 1999.
“Law enforcement should be made to pay civil lawsuits filed against them, versus us using our taxpayer dollars,” said Hopkins, co-founder and president of the Coalition of Concerned Mothers. “They should also lose pensions when they make egregious acts against civilians.”
Larry Cosme, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, wrote in a June 24 article why qualified immunity remains necessary.
“Law enforcement needs qualified immunity in order to carry out their jobs. Law enforcement is required to make split-second decisions,” he wrote. “Without qualified immunity, they may be hesitant to act when it is most needed.”
House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson introduced social and economic justice agendas with several police reforms such as repealing the controversial Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, eliminating no-knock warrants and making documents public related to police investigations and previous complaints made against an officer.
The House Judiciary and Senate Judicial Proceedings committees reviewed other police reform legislation this week such as procedures on use of force, state attorneys create a database of law enforcement officers committed or accused of wrongdoing, and ensure drivers stopped by police at a traffic stop know their rights.
Wilkins said ending police immunity can serve as a nucleus to incorporate criminal justice reform.
“I view this issue as a very specific, critical and missing piece of the conversation in terms of ensuring accountability,” she said. “If we do anything else … but we don’t include this piece that is the specific liability and accountability for officers, we really would be missing out on ensuring comprehensive police reform this legislative session.”