Opinion | Increased qualified immunity is a danger to society

Throughout history, qualified immunity has been used as a means to excuse police brutality. We need to dismantle this law, not enforce it.



Gov. Kim Reynolds prepares for the State of the State Address within the house chambers of the Iowa State Capitol Building on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021 in Des Moines. Tuesday marks the second day of the 2021 Iowa legislative session, in which Gov. Reynolds will give her address in the evening.

Yassie Buchanan, Opinions Colmunist

Qualified immunity has a long history of perpetuating racism within the judicial system, and now Iowa’s government is adding fuel to the fire with the issue.

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the “Back the Blue” bill into law on June 17. While the bill increases penalties for protesting, it also increases qualified immunity for law enforcement.

While Reynolds and supporters of this bill see it as a necessary protection, this is just another harmful way for Iowa’s government to uphold racism within the judicial system.

Qualified immunity has a tumultuous history in our country, rooted in racism. The concept and language surrounding qualified immunity emerged during the Civil Rights Movement.

Following racism within the public transit system, 15 priests were arrested while protesting in Jackson, Mississippi. The priests filed a lawsuit because they believed that their arrests were aimed to enforce segregation instead of the officers’ arguments that it was to prevent violence/

In the ruling of the case, Chief Justice Earl Warren coined the language we use today, saying police do not have a right to “absolute unqualified immunity” —  meaning there would be complete immunity from criminal charges. However, officers are not held liable if they acted in “good faith”, which means judges today must grant immunity if there is no clear precedent that the officer’s actions were out of line.

This bill is even more troubling when considering the increase in force used by Iowa police. With the ongoing civil rights initiatives and heightened instances of police brutality, there has been an increase in suspects fleeing from police, as well as a significant increase in force.

Officers and Iowa State Patrol were reported to have drawn weapons 296 times in 2020, which was an 83 percent increase from the previous year.

Along with the increase in unrest related to policing, Black Iowans are disproportionately involved in these incidents. While making up only 4.1 percent of the population, Black Iowans make up 30 percent of the people involved in increased force cases.

An example of qualified immunity can be seen in the 2017 case of Jerome Harrell. Harrell had turned himself in to the police after having had a traffic violation, and had been left alone in his cell. He was banging his head and howling in distress all night into the morning.

When officers came in the morning to restrain him for medical assessment, Harrell resisted. The officers then tazed him twice and pinned him to the ground. By the time they were done with him, he had died. The autopsy was said to have revealed it was only a freak accident. However, a photographer noted there was a large pool of blood in his cell.

The officers were not charged due to qualified immunity, saying the use of force was justified. It is cases like these that remind us of the dangers of justifying people’s death in the hands of law enforcement.

If Harrell had been given proper care sooner and in his handling during restraining, his death could have been avoided. Law enforcement and legislature should be more pressed with avoiding these situations than protecting the police involved from repercussions.

Oftentimes when conversations come up regarding police brutality the argument is not whether the actions of the police were harmful. It is about whether or not the lives harmed matter enough for there to be repercussions.

Time and time again, the judicial system devalues Black and Brown lives while protecting the perpetrators of this brutality. While qualified immunity is one small part of the problem with policing in America, we should be working to dismantle it, not enforce it.


Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.