It’s a widely accepted belief that the legal system will almost never hold police officers accountable for their actions, and now, a recent study has provided the numbers to back that claim.
An investigation conducted by Reuters examined 500 cases to see if the Supreme Court proves Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s assertion that the court acts as “an absolute shield” against police accountability. The study found that “qualified immunity” has acted as a barrier that prevents officers from even being tried for excessive force. Qualified Immunity is a doctrine that was introduced in 1967 by the Supreme Court to protect government officials from unnecessary litigation.
The doctrine provides that a police officer can’t even be put on trial for using excessive force unless the person suing proves that:
1. the evidence shows or could convince a jury that the officer used excessive force; and
2.the officers should have known they were violating “clearly established” law, because a prior court case had already deemed similar police actions to be illegal.
This two-part test means that even if a court finds that the officer used excessive force, it will grant immunity if the facts don’t match an earlier case finding the same conduct to be illegal.
The “clearly established” law requirement makes it hard to win against the police, Reuters found, because courts are increasingly requiring a nearly identical case to use as precedent—and a court can almost always find or make up a factual difference between the case it’s reviewing and an earlier case.
Since 2009, judges have been allowed to ignore altogether the question of whether an officer used excessive force. That way, they avoid setting a precedent for future cases, which allows the same conduct to repeatedly go unpunished.
The study also found that the Supreme Court was 3.5 times more likely to intervene on behalf of a police officer than a civilian. In those cases, the court almost always rules in favor of the officer. Chief Justice Sotomayor has been critical of this approach in recent years. In a 2018 dissent, she said that the “one-sided approach to qualified immunity transforms the doctrine into an absolute shield for law enforcement officers, gutting the deterrent effect of the Fourth Amendment.”
The federal government doesn’t keep track of the number of people killed or seriously injured by police. Reuters estimated that 1,000 people are killed each year at the hands of the police. Very few, if any of them, will get the justice they deserve.