Why Aren’t Police Held Accountable? An Analysis of Qualified Immunity


Allison Sewell

In 2010, Israel Leija Jr. was tracked down by the police after violating his misdemeanor probation. When he caught sight of them at a restaurant, he took off in his car, sparking a highway chase. The officers were trained to set up road spikes during car chases to prevent the driver from losing control and harming civilians. However, officer Chadrin Mullenix decided to ignore training and shoot at Israel’s engine with a rifle: something he wasn’t trained to do. Of his 6 shots, 4 hit Israel killing him and causing his car to spin out of control while none hit the engine. After killing Israel, Mullenix exclaimed, “How’s that for proactive?” Despite it being clear that the officer used unnecessary force and went against their duties of ensuring public safety, when brought to the Supreme Court, they ruled that the officer should not be held accountable and granted him “qualified immunity”. 

Police officers have always been granted greater rights and freedoms than ordinary citizens in order for them to be able to do their jobs properly. For example, society gives police officers the extra legal authority to carry concealed weapons in order for them to protect civilians; however, how much is too much? When police officers know they can’t be prosecuted for their actions, they act more recklessly and more innocent civilians can end up being killed. The precedent of qualified immunity set by the Supreme Court only encourage this behavior.  

Qualified immunity is a vague doctrine that prevents police officers from going to trial unless a “clearly established law” has been broken or it has been broken not in “good faith” by someone who is “knowingly incompetent”. The definition of a clearly established law is unclear, and has led to many unjust interpretations of when qualified immunity can and should be applied. In the absence of precedent, cases involving police officers never reach trial. 

Is qualified immunity necessary? The answer is tough. 

The argument can be made that without the doctrine, police would be too scared to act and our society would be increasingly unsafe. The burden police officers face of needing to act quickly in situations may result in property damage or trespassing. Even though they are breaking the law, qualified immunity allows them to act effectively without overthinking their every action. If there was a reasonable mistake or misunderstanding of the law, qualified immunity can be granted. In addition, the doctrine is intended to weed out all of the frivolous lawsuits. These lawsuits cost taxpayers millions of dollars.  

On the contrary, removing the doctrine forces officers to be held accountable for their actions and prevents unnecessary harm on innocent civilians while providing proper retribution to those who break the law. Victims of brutality and abuse that are not able to hold their abusers accountable cannot achieve justice. According to the Georgetown Law Journal, the amount of cases being granted qualified immunity has increased in recent years, leading to major problems with little benefit. The line between what is a just use of force is becoming blurred.

This doctrine allows for a “shoot first” mentality that has caused unnecessary loss of life. The University of Alabama Law Journal explains “In its current form, the qualified immunity doctrine…has the potential to shield the plainly incompetent officer from liability. The only constitutional limitation on the use of force by police officers is that it be reasonable… deference to the individual police officer’s decision regarding the use of force, combined with the protections afforded by the qualified immunity doctrine, encourages a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing”. The Court refuses to recognize that when faced with many different approaches to handling a situation, officers should choose the least dangerous one. 

What is the answer then? Maybe it is ending qualified immunity. Maybe it is reconciling it. Maybe it’s ensuring that police officers have better training. It is unclear the best course of action, but what is clear is that the current system is not working. The doctrine is failing to do what it is supposed to. The balance between protecting society’s constitutional rights and police officer’s ability to act must be found.