Among the proposals in this police reform bill is an end to qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields police officers from lawsuits, in certain circumstances, when they violate a citizen’s constitutional rights.
By voting to strip police officers of these protections, Kuster and Pappas put themselves at odds with the two Democratic U.S. Senators from New Hampshire, Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen. Both oppose the legislation Kuster and Pappas voted for.
“I think it’s important to hold police officers accountable for actions that violate citizens’ constitutional rights,” Shaheen told the Concord Monitor. “But I would hope that in addressing that issue, we would do it in a way that reaches a compromise between people who want to totally redefine it, and those who don’t want to change it at all.”
Hassan said she was concerned that “there might be some unintended consequences to abolishing qualified immunity entirely.”
Kuster will have none of it. She’s ready to push through a repeal of qualified immunity and is unhappy with the police officials who are defending it. “I think, really, the police union has made it more controversial,” she told the Monitor.
Kuster said she believes that the public agrees with her position that “any person should want to be held to a high standard of conduct.”
“I think most police would want to hold their profession to a higher standard. So I honestly don’t believe it needs to be controversial, they should want to hold bad officers accountable in order to maintain the public trust,” she added.
Saying the police “should want to hold bad officers accountable” is actually saying that they don’t. Kuster has clearly staked out her position, though she declined repeated requests from NHJournal for comment or clarification.
Meanwhile, Pappas has little to say about the issue of qualified immunity. In fact, during a June 3 interview on NHPR, Pappas declined to answer a question on the subject from the ACLU, claiming a lack of familiarity with the subject.
But he voted for it and now one of his would-be GOP opponents is calling him out on it.
“I didn’t think it was humanly possible, but Chris Pappas has managed to do it: support a policy position so extreme that even Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen are forced to rebuke it,” NH-01 Republican candidate Matt Mowers said in a statement. “No one in their right mind would ever confuse either Shaheen or Hassan for middle-of-the-road moderates, but that’s how far out of the mainstream Pappas has become by voting to take away qualified immunity from our law enforcement officers.”
At least one of those officers has expressed his opposition to qualified immunity repeal.
“We want to encourage police departments to meet the most current professional standards for use of force, including using de-escalation techniques. At the same time, we must confront the reality that good police officers are often forced to make split second decisions in dangerous and rapidly evolving circumstances,” said Paul Callaghan, lieutenant in the Strafford County Sheriff’s Office and candidate for Strafford County Sheriff.
“When the safety of the community and officer is jeopardized because of fear of frivolous lawsuits, we’ve dangerously politicized law enforcement.”
And Manchester Police Chief Carlo Capano told Manchester Ink Link last week that stripping cops of these lawsuit protections could make it harder for departments like his to hire new officers.
“Well, if we’re having a difficult time now in the hiring and retention of police officers, eliminating qualified immunity would make it worse. But a police officer who violates civil rights should be held accountable.”
Kuster and Pappas are prepared to take on the police unions, questioning their motives and commitment to professionalism. But are they prepared to take on their fellow Democrats, too?