By Bob Katzen

The Senate 16-24, rejected an amendment striking a section of the bill which sets new limits on qualified immunity protections that currently shield police and other government officials from civil suits. The amendment would replace the section with a special commission to study the state’s current qualified immunity and report back to the Legislature within six months.

Qualified immunity is a judicially-created legal doctrine established by the U.S. Supreme Court. Under current qualified immunity, police officers and other government officials can only be held accountable in civil suits for violating someone’s rights if a court has previously ruled that it was “clearly established” those precise actions were unconstitutional.

Supporters of the study said they are not saying that qualified immunity should exist without some change nor that it should be abolished. They are simply saying that the Senate needs more information on the subject before taking any action.

“We don’t have enough information,” said Sen. John Velis (D-Westfield), the sponsor of the study amendment. “We need to do a deep-dive.”

“We need to hear from stakeholders,” continued Velis. “Our job is not to watch CNN or Fox News to get informed, it’s our job to vote in the best interest of constituents.”

Opponents of the study said the limits the bill places on qualified immunity are reasonable and fair and are a compromise between doing nothing and abolishing qualified immunity outright.

Critics say that qualified immunity has shielded violent police officers from being personally responsible for their actions. Supporters of it say that limiting qualified immunity puts police officers at risk of frivolous lawsuits.

Carol Rose of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts said setting some limits on qualified immunity is a start. “In order to make any laws about excessive use of force meaningful, it is absolutely essential to reform qualified immunity,” said Rose. “While the ACLU and many of our allies still wish to see qualified immunity eliminated, we commend the Senate for taking this critical action and urge the House to do the same.

The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association (BPPA) is opposed to the limits placed on qualified immunity. “To be clear, qualified immunity is a bedrock protection extended to all public employees,” tweeted the BPPA. “Not just police officers. It does not protect bad cops. In fact, it only protects police officers who act reasonably and within the rules and regulations of their respective departments.”

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