State lawmakers in New York are pushing to repeal something they never chose to put in place.
The U.S. Supreme Court granted law enforcement, government and other public officials qualified immunity in a legal doctrine in 1967, barring people from filing civil lawsuits against an official who violates their rights.
Dozens of advocates and state lawmakers rallied at the state Capitol on Wednesday calling for an end to qualified immunity and protecting law enforcement and public officials from civil litigation in New York a day after Gov. Kathy Hochul announced her opposition to the proposal.
"We want all individuals that are dealing with the public to be transparent, to be honest to be straight-forward to be respectful and not to violate their rights, and if you violate their rights, then you need to be held accountable," bill sponsor Sen. Robert Jackson said.
Jackson, a Manhattan Democrat, said that protection has given public officials leeway in how they treat people on the job.
Lawmakers and activists say it's a part of the national legal structure that must be dismantled to ensure no person is above the law.
But Hochul says she doesn't support repealing qualified immunity, and the protection should remain in place.
At a public safety event in Albany on Tuesday, she said it would be the incorrect action in wake of the ongoing shortage of law enforcement officers and her desire to foster positive attitudes about police.
"An area we do not want to have a shortage is our law enforcement — the ones who protect us, who keep order," the governor said, adding she'll continue to focus on changing the attitude people have about law enforcement.
"People who are the outliers — those who commit an act that is reprehensible and abuses their power — I don't care if they're in law enforcement, a teacher or politician, anybody, there's consequences, but don't sweep the actions of a few in any profession to characterize the majority, and that's what's happened," Hochul continued. "So we have to get at that mentality."
Municipalities and local governments would be on the hook for corresponding civil litigation involving their employees if qualified immunity is repealed.
This would also mean a potential influx of civil suits against government and state employees, of which the state would be responsible.
Assembly sponsor Pamela Hunter says the governor's statement means she doesn't fully understand the bill to repeal qualified immunity in the state, as the measure does not target any specific group of public officials.
Hunter plans to send data to Hochul's office to dispel the governor's concerns that the assemblywoman says are rooted in misinformation.
"This is not an anti-police bill," Hunter said Wednesday. "I think that has been the overarching sentiment and that's wrong, and I don't think that should be at the forefront of the conversation. This is about protecting constitutional rights."
Republican lawmakers in both chambers stand firmly aligned with Hochul, echoing her concerns it will not lead to a greater exodus of law enforcement officers and lead to decreased public safety.
"How we can show law enforcement we appreciate them and we have their backs, like they have our backs, is providing the tools and resources so they can do their jobs as safely as possible," said Assemblyman Phil Palmesano, a Republican from Corning.
People who have been treated unfairly by public officials without legal recourse argue more accountability for all officials will improve public safety, and Hochul's position on the proposal doesn't make sense.
"Gov. Kathy Hochul has said that no one should be above the law and public safety is her top priority, but then yesterday said she opposed the bill to end qualified immunity," said VOCAL-NY leader Tracie Adams. "Gov. Hochul, you can't have it both ways. You can't say that the officers should have immunity from accountability and that we must hold them accountable. If you are truly on the side of safety and accountability, you must support to end qualified immunity."
A handful of lawmakers have signed on to co-sponsor the bill in these first few weeks of session, but Hochul isn't the only Democrat who's expressed concerns about the End Qualified Immunity Act.
Sen. James Skoufis, a Democrat in the Hudson Valley, chairs the Investigations and Government Operations Committee where the bill remains. He also came out against the bill following the governor's comments, saying it would victimize good police officers who are forced to make split-second decisions on the job.