New York

Pols to fight Hochul’s reluctance to end qualified immunity

New York state lawmakers are rushing to repeal something they never chose to do.

The U.S. Supreme Court granted qualified immunity to law enforcement, government officials, and other public officials in a 1967 jurisprudence that barred individuals from bringing civil actions against an official who violated their rights.

Dozens of attorneys and state lawmakers rallied at the state Capitol on Wednesday to call for an end to qualified immunity and to protect law enforcement and officials from civil lawsuits in New York, a day after Gov. Kathy Hochul announced her opposition to the proposal.

“We want all people dealing with the public to be transparent, honest, upstanding, respectful and not violating their rights, and if you violate their rights you must be held accountable,” Bill urges said sponsor Senator Robert Jackson.

Jackson, a Manhattan Democrat, said the protections have given officers leeway in how they treat people in the workplace.

Lawmakers and activists say it’s part of the national legal structure that needs to be dismantled to ensure no one is above the law.

But Hochul says she doesn’t support lifting qualified immunity and protections should remain.

Speaking at a public safety event in Albany on Tuesday, she said it was the wrong measure given the ongoing shortage of law enforcement officers and her desire to encourage positive attitudes towards the police.

“One area we don’t want to lack is our law enforcement agencies — the ones who protect us, who keep order,” the governor said, adding she will continue to focus on changing how people think about law enforcement .

“People who are the runaways — the ones who commit a reprehensible act and abuse their power — I don’t care if they’re in law enforcement, a teacher or politician or anyone, there are consequences, but don’t sweep the actions of few in any profession to characterize the majority and that’s what happened,” Hochul continued. “So we have to get that mentality.”

Municipalities and local governments would have to reckon with corresponding civil lawsuits against their employees if the qualified immunity were lifted.

It would also mean a potential increase in civil lawsuits against government and state employees for which the state would be responsible.

Assembly sponsor Pamela Hunter says the governor’s statement means she doesn’t fully understand the bill to lift qualified immunity in the state because the measure doesn’t target a specific group of officials.

Hunter plans to send data to Hochul’s office to allay the governor’s concerns, which the deputy says are based on misinformation.

“This is not an anti-police law,” Hunter said Wednesday. “I think that was the overarching view and that’s wrong, and I don’t think that should be the forefront of the conversation. This is about protecting constitutional rights.”

Republican lawmakers in both houses stand firmly with Hochul and express concern that it will not result in a larger exodus of law enforcement officials and a reduction in public safety.

“How we can show law enforcement that we value them and that we have their backs like they have our backs is by providing them with the tools and resources so they can do their job as safely as possible,” said Rep. Phil Palmesano , a Republican from Corning.

People treated unfairly by officials without a remedy argue that more accountability for all officials would improve public safety, and Hochul’s position on the proposal makes no sense.

“Gov. Kathy Hochul has said that no one should be above the law and that public safety is her top priority, but yesterday she said she opposes the law ending qualified immunity,” said Tracie Adams, Chair of VOCAL-NY. “Gov. Hochul, you can’t have both. You cannot say that officials should have immunity from accountability and that we must hold them accountable. If you are truly on the side of safety and accountability, you need to support ending qualified immunity.”

A handful of lawmakers have pledged to co-sponsor the bill in these first weeks of session, but Hochul isn’t the only Democrat to voice concerns about the End Qualified Immunity Act.

Senator James Skoufis, a Hudson Valley Democrat, is chairing the investigative and government operations committee on which the bill remains. He also spoke out against the law following the governor’s comments, saying it would harass good cops who are forced to make split-second decisions at work.

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