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After debate, Spokane City Council asks Congress to address ‘qualified immunity’ protections for police

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 23, 2020


Spokane City Council members largely agreed Monday on what federal policy changes Congress should enact, but one stood out.

The council debated whether it should ask federal legislators to reform qualified immunity, a doctrine that often protects police officers from being held personally liable in federal court for using excessive force.

“There’s a lot of actual misconduct and damage that occurs to citizens and community members that doesn’t get paid for by the people at fault,” Council President Breean Beggs explained.

Qualified immunity has come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of George Floyd’s death and protests over police accountability earlier this year. Advocates for reform are pushing federal legislators to abolish it at the federal level, arguing that it inhibits the ability to hold individual officers accountable for their actions. Although it’s often raised in debates over police accountability, qualified immunity actually applies to a wide range of government officials.

The Spokane City Council may not have much of a say in Congress, but every year it adopts a “legislative agenda” outlining its priorities in lobbying federal legislators. The 2020 agenda was widely approved by the council at its meeting on Monday, but not before Councilman Michael Cathcart singled out qualified immunity for discussion.

Cathcart expressed concern that eliminating qualified immunity could invite frivolous litigation against officers and dissuade people from joining the force. Cathcart said the city should take up how to deal with the issue – which is under debate at the federal level – during its own upcoming conversations about police reform.

“I just think that it’s something that we should hold off on and have that robust discussion at a later date,” Cathcart said.

Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson agreed that qualified immunity is a federal matter but argued that should not dissuade the council from taking a stance.

“Qualified immunity means that the victims of brutality or harassment by law enforcement generally get no relief in court and have no ability to hold offending officers accountable,” Wilkerson said.

Officers responsible for the misconduct “have no incentive to improve their practices and follow the law,” Wilkerson added.

“This undermines the safety and justice for everyone, and particularly for people of color and vulnerable people who are most likely to be targets of police misconduct,” Wilkerson said.

Certain variations of qualified-immunity reform could make sense, Cathcart said, but to “punish all officers, even those who are good” with unnecessary litigation is not the path forward.

“If there are ways that we can hold (accountable) those officers who deserve to be held accountable … absolutely, 1,000% agree, and let’s figure out the best way to do that,” Cathcart said.

Qualified immunity was the only portion of the council’s list of priorities that was debated at its meeting Monday night. The council approved the full resolution by a 6-1 vote, with Cathcart the only member opposed.

The city has yet to embark on the community conversation on police reform promised by the City Council and Mayor Nadine Woodward earlier this year. Woodward told The Spokesman-Review on Tuesday the process has been complicated by COVID-19 restrictions.

“We’re looking at how we’re doing this under COVID, because these are discussions that need to be done face to face,” Woodward said. “We’re working on that right now, but looking forward to engaging in conversations with stakeholders, with police, with council (and) my office.”

Criminal justice reform and civil rights protections topped the council’s list of priorities for federal action in 2020, but the council also called for support for local governments through the COVID-19 crisis, aid to child care providers, investment in mental health care and funding for public transportation infrastructure.

“The City believes it has no greater responsibility than protecting the civil rights and safety of its residents and promoting criminal justice reform at the local, state, and federal levels,” the council’s resolution states.

The council also called for the federal government to preserve its funding of the Fairchild Air Force Base.

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