Last week, Police Chief James Craig announced that he will retire June 1 after eight years running the Detroit Police Department amid reports that he is considering running for governor as a Republican. During his retirement announcement, Craig spoke about his record on improving community relations, holding police officers accountable and increasing transparency in the department.
Craig also made remarks about qualified immunity — a judicial doctrine that shields government officials from being held personally liable for constitutional violations, according to legal scholar Nathaniel Sobel.
Law enforcement officers are included as government officials under this doctrine.
Craig said during the retirement announcement that the current discussion around qualified immunity is “dangerous.”
“It’s a veiled attempt to dismantle policing, period. But I’ve said it publicly before now and will continue to say it is bad, bad. These police officers deserve better than that,” Craig said.
David Robinson, a civil rights attorney and former member of the Detroit Police Department, said qualified immunity hurts Detroiters and believes Craig “knew exactly who he was talking to” with his remarks on qualified immunity.
“(Craig) is a Black Republican who hasn’t ruled out running for office. So just like guys like Tim Scott or John James, he’s vying for a spot in a party who wants to hear these exact kinds of things coming (from) a Black man,” he said.
“We are a city with mostly Black people and, unfortunately, Black and Brown people are the ones who will be most often targeted by police. Anything that overwhelmingly gives police legal protection that isn’t afforded to Black people will ultimately hurt Black cities like Detroit,” Robinson said.
Craig made similar statements on Fox News’ “The Faulkner Focus” last month, when he discussed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would strip qualified immunity from police.
“My colleagues have said, if they push that bill of qualified immunity, that’s going to be a problem,” Craig said to Faulkner. “We will not know policing like it is. … It’s tragic. What’s going on today … is tragic.”
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act was introduced in response to growing national concern about the need for police accountability and reform. The legislation bans racial profiling and chokeholds, mandates the collection of data on police encouters and would create a national standard for policing. The issue of qualified immunity was a sticking point in debate about the legislation, but the act passed the U.S. House last month.
Democrats like U.S. Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri believe removing this blanket legal protection from officers is a vital step in national efforts to create real police reform. Bush told the host of CNN’s “Inside Politics” last month that she is unwilling to compromise on removing qualified immunity from their police reform bill.
“If you don’t hurt people, if you don’t kill people, if you are just and fair in your work, then do you need the qualified immunity anyway?” Bush said on CNN.
Conservatives like Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana agree with Craig — ending qualified immunity would be bad for officers, and, in his opinion, the public as well.
However, U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a Southfield Democrat, helped craft the legislation and said, “We’ve lost too many Black and Brown lives from unnecessary, excessive force used by police officers.”
Lawrence said she doesn’t believe police should have “absolute” immunity.
“As a former mayor (of Southfield), I understand how important our officers are to our community,” Lawrence said in a statement. “This issue, and the entire bill, is about accountability. It’s long overdue, and it’s time for actionable change.”
Julie Hurwitz, vice president of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), said qualified immunity is “one of the most destructive doctrines that has emerged from the Supreme Court.”
“It is basically giving individual officers at least ‘one free bite’ to violate the Constitution with impunity/immunity,” Hurwitz said.
One of the more egregious components of the doctrime, according to Hurwitz, is the need for an officer to violate a “clearly established” law. Hurwitz says even if someone had their constitutional rights violated by an officer’s actions, if the right at issue was not “clearly established” within the court’s jurisdiction at the time of said conduct, the officer is immune from liability.
“This results in situations where cops can do whatever they want as long as no other case beforehand has recognized their behavior as unconstitutional, even if it is determined in this case to be unconstitutional” she said.
“We’ve seen instance after instance of police officers acting as if they are above accountability and qualified immunity exacerbates this,” said U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat who supported the measure.
“We need to do away with qualified immunity and send a clear message that we will not allow any public servant to act with impunity. It’s my hope that most people want to ensure no one is above the law and realize that getting rid of qualified immunity helps us get to that place.”
BridgeDetroit reached out to Craig for comment but did not receive a response by press time.