Police Accountability Is a Matter of Life and Death

One year ago today, George Floyd was murdered by armed agents of the state. Their employer, the Minneapolis Police Department, initially attributed Floyd’s death to a “medical incident,” for which officers had taken him to the hospital. But because 17‐​year‐​old Darnella Frazier captured the horrific incident on video—and perhaps only for that reason—we know what really happened: George Floyd was brutally asphyxiated by police over a period of nearly ten minutes while he called out for his mother and bystanders begged to intervene.

What’s most extraordinary about this travesty is not the flagrant abuse of authority, but the fact that one of the officers was actually held accountable for it. And after a year of furious, sometimes violent protests, that remains the key issue surrounding police reform in America: Accountability.

As Cato scholars and others have repeatedly explained, police cannot do their jobs effectively without the trust and support of the communities they serve. But public confidence in police is at an all time low, and that seriously impairs their ability to do the most important part of their jobs, which is not handing out traffic tickets, resolving domestic disputes, or making misdemeanor arrests for rinky‐​dink crimes like low‐​level drug possession, but keeping our neighborhoods safe from violence and theft.

Why is public confidence in police so low? Doubtless there are many reasons, including overcriminalizationracially disparate enforcement, and using cops to raise revenue through fines, fees, and forfeitures. But perhaps the most corrosive dynamic of all is the widespread—and entirely accurate—perception that instead of being held to a very high standard of accountability, police are held to a very low standard. And what is the cornerstone of this near‐​zero‐​accountability policy for law enforcement? The judge‐​made doctrine of qualified immunity.

As we explained when Cato launched its campaign to eliminate qualified immunity more than three years ago, qualified immunity is an illegitimate legal doctrine that not only discourages the filing of otherwise meritorious civil rights lawsuits, but routinely enables rights‐​violating police to avoid liability for even the most egregious acts of misconduct including stealing money while executing a search warrantbrutally assaulting the purported victim of a domestic violence incident at a public swimming pool, and shooting a ten‐​year‐​old boy in the back of the leg while negligently firing at a non‐​threatening family dog.

Incredibly, the Supreme Court allowed the lower court rulings in each of those—and many other equally egregious—cases to stand last June, less than one month after police murdered George Floyd in broad daylight on the streets of Minneapolis. The message was clear: Do not look to the Supreme Court to clean up the mess it made with its improvident foray into judicial policymaking.

To its credit, Congress appears to have received that message and has publicly committed itself to enacting some sort of police‐​reform legislation at the federal level. Yet here we are on the one‐​year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, and still Congress has done nothing. Frustrating though that may be, however, it’s better than the usual alternative, which is to duck the hard issues by enacting an essentially meaningless basket of window‐​dressing masquerading as real reform.

Not this time. This time, there is an unprecedented confluence of policymakersactivists, and thought‐​leaders from across the political spectrum who understand that accountability is the key to restoring public confidence in police, and that there can be no real accountability without repealing—or at least substantially reforming—the unlawful shield of qualified immunity.

Of course, nothing we do today will bring George Floyd back to life. But what we can do—what we must do—is everything in our power to purge the remaining Derek Chauvins from the ranks of law enforcement and ensure that for the violation of every right—every right—there is a remedy. We have never had a better opportunity to restore public faith in law enforcement by ensuring consistent, meaningful, and just accountability. Shame on us if we squander it.