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January 25, 2023, 6:42 PM

Supporters rally to repeal qualified immunity laws that shield police from lawsuits; Hochul signals opposition

By Denis Slattery

ALBANY — A day after Gov. Hochul voiced opposition, advocates and progressive lawmakers renewed their push to repeal a longstanding legal shield protecting police and public workers from being sued for on-the-job misconduct.

Police reform advocates and others rallied at the state Capitol on Wednesday in support of a bill that would scale back qualified immunity, which prevents civil lawsuits for damages against public employees who violate someone’s constitutional rights unless the victim can prove the official violated “clearly established” law.

“We cannot have public safety without trust,” said state Sen. Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan), the lead sponsor of the bill. “We cannot have trust without accountability.”

Jackson’s bill would enable New Yorkers whose state or federal constitutional rights are violated to sue police or other officials in state court, where the defense of qualified immunity would be prohibited.

The push comes after Hochul admitted that she’s not too keen on the idea of repealing qualified immunity for cops.

The governor, after touring the Capital Region Crime Analysis Center in Albany on Tuesday, at first said she would “not give a straight answer” on the issue.

A moment later, she added that she doesn’t “support the repeal of that, no.”

“What I do support is stopping the denigration of people who take an oath to protect society,” Hochul said. “Again, they cross the line, you make an example because communities need to know they can trust law enforcement to not cross that line, that’s important to me.”

Police unions and Republicans have likewise balked at the idea of repealing qualified immunity in recent years as support has grown and similar legislation was approved in the city and in other states.

Patrick Lynch, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, which represents rank-and-file NYPD officers, said he hopes Hochul’s comments are “a sign New York’s leaders are finally realizing that the policing pendulum has swung too far away from common sense.”

“If we want to stop the deterioration of public safety in New York, we need to stop piling new burdens and penalties on police officers,” Lynch said. “We need every elected official to speak up and say — unequivocally — that they’ll support police officers when we do the job in good faith.”

City lawmakers partially stripped the protection for cops in the five boroughs two years ago, but only in cases of alleged excessive force.

Colorado enacted a law in 2020 that allows the public to bring claims against cops who violate their constitutional rights under state law, sidestepping qualified immunity.

The issue gained national attention in the wake of protests sparked by the 2020 death of George Floyd, a black Minnesota man who was killed when a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

“It is essential to highlight that ending qualified immunity does not hurt officers who follow the law in carrying out their duties,” Jackson wrote in an op-ed published by the Daily News on Sunday. “It merely stops officers who otherwise would be breaking the law from getting away with it and not being held accountable.”

However, Sen. James Skoufis (D-Newburgh), chairman of the chamber’s Investigations and Government Operations Committee, said he agrees with the governor and also opposes the measure.

“Hold bad cops accountable, yes. Split-second decisions, however, should not be unjustly weaponized against good cops,” he tweeted, noting that the bill is sitting in the IGO committee.

“Additionally, at a time when so many police departments are demoralized and depleted, repealing qualified immunity would be an enormous obstacle to replenishing our PDs,” Skoufis added.