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Supporters push bill to end qualified immunity for police

Karen DeWitt / WBFO Albany Correspondent
State Sen. Robert Jackson, the sponsor of the bill to end qualified immunity, speaks June 2 at a rally outside the State Capitol.

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

Qualified immunity is a legal principle that gives government officials, such as police, personal immunity from civil lawsuits when something goes wrong, unless a plaintiff 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 Rikers 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 said 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 added he will keep fighting because he “cannot get over the fact that my brother isn’t coming home.” 

Other speakers included a former Albany police chief and Jerry Greenfield, one of the founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. 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,” Greenfield said. 

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

The measure faces an uncertain future in the Democratic-led State Assembly as the session winds down. Sponsor Pamela Hunter said 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,” Hunter said. 

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

“The goal is to end it now,” said Jackson, who added that 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.

Jackson said he’s in it for the long haul. He was a plaintiff in the school aid funding legal challenge known 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 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.
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