Taking a close look at police reform, qualified immunity


Western Michigan University Cooley Law School’s Law Review held a symposium recently to take an in-depth look at qualified immunity and police reform.

The featured guest speaker Eli Savit, civil rights attorney and Washtenaw County prosecutor who leads the city of Detroit’s criminal justice reform work.

Panelists included Harold Love, a retired Michigan State Police captain and commander of its Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division after serving 25 years; WMU-Cooley Prof. Lewis Langham; and Marla Mitchell-Cichon, WMU-Cooley distinguished professor emeritus and counsel to the law school’s Innocence Project.

WMU-Cooley Prof. Anthony Flores moderated the symposium.

During the event, panelists discussed how qualified immunity balances the need to hold public officials accountable, while at the same time providing protections from liability when officials perform their duties reasonably.

“What qualified immunity is really doing is addressing the problem at the back end when we need to solve the problem on the front end,” said Mitchell-Cichon, who formerly served as director of WMU-Cooley’s Innocence Project. “In my work that I do, we are actually seeing the misconduct and it’s affecting an innocent person’s life.”

“You hear about these calls to abolish qualified immunity all the time,” Savit said. “This is a judicially-created doctrine — it can be changed.”

All of this stems from the statute that Congress passed back in 1871, he said.

“If Congress wants to add to that statute a standard that — either reinstates a more modest qualified immunity doctrine or get rid of qualified immunity all together — it can always do that,” Savit said. “This isn’t something that’s constitutional; it was part of something that was judicially created as part of an interpretation of a statute, and so Congress can always override it.”

Additionally, the symposium reviewed the recent call for police reforms following the 2020 death of George of Floyd.

“Policing is a profession that is very hard to understand,” Love said to attendees. “You have to be it to get it. There’s so much involved in the job of a police officer that you literally cannot explain it to someone.”

“One of the things I do when training police cadets at the Michigan Police Academy, is take full advantage to talk about implicit bias and civil rights,” Langham said. “We try to train cadets in the beginning stage. I tell them, ‘You need to make a decision. You know what the right thing is to do.

“You know what the legal thing is to do. You have just as much police authority as your supervisor — they may have more rank, but no more police authority.”


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