Above the Law

HOW "QUALIFIED IMMUNITY" PROTECTS VIOLENT POLICE


BEN COHEN


WITH A FOREWORD BY MICHAEL “KILLER MIKE” RENDER

“An unflinching indictment ... essential reading.” —Porsha Williams

“How can police shoot a man in the back as he's walking away, five seconds into an encounter? Or let a K-9 attack a man who's sitting down, surrendering with his arms in the air? More importantly: how do they get away with it? This book is a fantastic primer to a critical issue.”
—State Senator Nina Turner

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About the Book


• A police officer kills a twelve-year-old boy. It’s caught on video. The officer gets off.
• A police officer strangles a man selling cigarettes. It’s caught on video. The officer gets off.
• A police officer shoots a man in his car. It’s live-streamed. The officer gets off.

It happens over and over again. The culprit here, alongside the cops, is Qualified Immunity (QI), a legal principle which Reuters describes as “a nearly failsafe tool to let police brutality go unpunished and deny victims their constitutional rights.”

Originally intended to protect cops from being sued over good faith mistakes, courts have interpreted QI so broadly that police are shielded from accountability in all but the rarest of circumstances. Only when the exact same abusive behavior was already deemed unconstitutional by a court in the exact same jurisdiction can victims succeed in a prosecution.

Above the Law recounts 12 cases in which justice was denied because of QI. The stories are accompanied by infographics, timelines, and contextualizing background to create a concise and compelling indictment of an outrageously unjust legal principle that must be changed.

120 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-310-5 • E-book ISBN 978-1-68219-255-9

 

About the Author

Ben Cohen author photo

space after caption

Ben Cohen is the co-founder and former CEO of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. He is the founder of a variety of advocacy organizations and the author of several books, including: Ben & Jerry’s Double Dip Capitalism: Lead with Your Values and Make Money Too; Values-Driven Business: How to Change the World, Make Money, and Have Fun; and Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book. Ben and his partner Jerry Greenfield are currently helping to lead The Campaign to End Qualified Immunity.

 

Read an Excerpt

Walking While Black

In the summer of 2016, David Collie worked full-time building produce displays for supermarkets in Fort Worth, Texas. He was saving up to return to college that fall. On the night of July 27, David went to visit some friends who lived nearby. He wanted to check in and say hello to their kids. They called him “Uncle David.”

Meanwhile, two off-duty police officers heard a radio description of two suspects in a nearby robbery. The dispatcher described the suspects: Black males in their teens or early twenties, one 6’1”, the other 6’4.” The suspects, one apparently armed with a small pistol, stole two pairs of sneakers after arranging a deal on Facebook.

The cops saw David—5’6” and 33 years old (at least seven inches shorter and 10 years older) but Black—walking into his friends’ apartment complex. They shouted at him from their unmarked car as he continued to walk toward his friends’ apartment. But David didn’t know what they wanted. Did they want to see his hands? Did they want to know where he was going? “I was trying to comply,” David recalled. “I did hear him say ‘take your hand out of your pocket,’” David told a reporter a few months later. “So in my mind, I’m, like, trying to be like, ‘look, I’m showing my hand.’”

David took his hand out of his pocket, raised his right arm, and pointed away from the cops, toward the nearest building, where he was headed. That’s when one cop, standing 34 feet away, opened fire, and shot David in the back, severing his spine.

Approximately five seconds passed between the beginning of the encounter and when the officer fired his weapon.

David fell to the pavement and cried out, “You didn’t have to shoot me!”

In the hospital, he was handcuffed to his bed. Paralyzed from the waist down and suffering from a collapsed lung, David spent the next two months in the hospital fighting false charges that he assaulted the officer. They were “painting a dirty picture,” David told a reporter a few months after the shooting. “It’s not the truth.”

The charges were untrue. The police officers falsified police reports to try to protect themselves.

David’s lawyer called the charges “revolting and repugnant.” It was the police who were breaking the law by compounding their attacks on David. “It’s a crime to falsify police reports, to say that someone lunged at you, or pointed a weapon at you. It’s a crime to shoot someone in the back from thirty-four feet away.”

Meanwhile, the police closed ranks around their officers. The officer who shot David was put on paid leave while police conducted an internal investigation that their spokesperson said lasted just “a few days.”

After stalling for a Freedom of Information Act request, the district attorney’s office shared dashcam footage of the shooting with David’s attorney. The video clearly shows that David was never anywhere near the officers, much less assaulting them. The cop’s body cam, which might have yielded a clearer picture of the incident, had conveniently cut out before he exited his cruiser and did not resume capturing video until after the shooting.

Despite the damages, the months in the hospital, and enduring vindictive charges and police stonewalling, David didn’t give up. He sued the police and the officers in federal court.

The police benefited from taxpayer-funded lawyers who fought hard for qualified immunity. The lawyers argued that the officers had acted reasonably because they feared for their safety. They emphasized that one of the robbery suspects was armed and pointed to the dashcam footage, which shows David raising his arm to the side while walking away from the officers.

The court sided with the police, granting them qualified immunity. They concluded that there “is no doubt that innocent citizens have a clearly established right not to be shot by police officers,” but that David could not sue because “reasonable officers could differ on the lawfulness of” the officer’s decision to shoot.

Going on little more than the officers’ statements about what they felt, the judges denied David justice and ruled that the cops decision to shoot him was “objectively reasonable.”

Now 37, David lives in an assisted-living facility, sharing a bathroom with another resident. He struggles to get by on Social Security and Medicaid.

“Paralyzed over some tennis shoes?” David laments. “Come on, man. You’re playing with a human life here.”

Had he prevailed in court, David would have been able to afford to renovate his mother’s house to enable wheelchair access. He holds out hope that he will one day be able to live with his family, but he is aware of what he has lost: his mobility, his job, his dream of being a cinematographer.

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