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Sunday, November 27, 2022
(Photo Courtesy of Kalvin Barret / @Kalvin_Barrett / Twitter)

Dane County Executive Board postpones proposal to end qualified immunity

The Dane County Executive Committee voted 5-2 to indefinitely postpone a symbolic proposal made by Dane County Supervisor Anthony Gray, Dis. 14, to end qualified immunity for Dane County law enforcement agencies. 

The resolution, initially drafted in August of 2021, aimed to signal the Dane County Board’s support for Wisconsin Assembly bill 186 and Senate bill 295, both of which propose ending qualified immunity for Wisconsin law enforcement. 

Qualified immunity is a doctrine that prevents citizens from suing law enforcement and other government officials directly for civil liability for misconduct or malfeasance. However, plaintiffs are able to sue local municipalities associated with the accused government official in civil court.  

The resolution specifically references the 2020 murder of George Floyd which ignited natiowide talks about the efficacy of qualified immunity and reasons that ending the legal doctrine in Wisconsin would act as an additional deterrent to police misconduct while also saving local municipalities considerable sums of money in legal defense costs.

“The murder of George Floyd through the actions of a Minneapolis police officer in April 2020 renewed national conversation on racial inequity and law enforcement excesses,” the resolution stated. “Ending qualified immunity may be the best way to mitigate law enforcement abuses and reduce taxpayer lawsuit expenditures.”

From 2010 to 2019, Milwaukee paid approximately $40 million in legal costs associated with police misconduct lawsuits as a result of the qualified immunity doctrine. The city of Madison’s expenditures on similar police misconduct lawsuits is currently unknown. 

County Supervisor Carousel Bayrd, Dis. 8, voted to postpone the resolution stating that the resolution focused too narrowly on law enforcement and does not address qualified immunity for other government officials.

“It’s pretty egregious, the level of immunity all government workers are given,” said Bayrd. “I do support a change to qualified immunity. It’s desperately needed.”

Gray’s resolution also drew opposition from Dane County Sheriff Kalvin Barrett. According to Barrett, ending qualified immunity leaves officers unreasonably vulnerable to judgement in court based on information they did not have at the time. 

“For example, the fact that a gun was a replica gun, or the gun was empty, or there was a second camera across the street at the gas station that saw something from behind that the officer didn’t see,” Barret said. “If qualified immunity is taken away, then our actions would be judged with additional information that we didn’t have at that time.”

Gray responded to these criticisms, stating that the possibility of direct civil repercussions for officers would encourage officers to further prioritize de-escalatory options when dealing with members of the community.

“I want law enforcement officers to hesitate before they shoot us down in the street,” he said. “I want them to take half a second extra to think, ‘Is this actually necessary? Is this the only way?’ Can we not deescalate? Can we not call in social workers and mental health workers?”

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