What the NYC Police Reform Legislation Means for Civil Lawsuits


In the midst of the trial of George Floyd’s accused killer, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the New York City council publicly announced reforms to how criminal and civil cases will deal with police officers accused of wrongdoing while on the job. The NYC police reform resulted from the fallout over Floyd’s death and resulting nationwide protests, which sought to hold police more accountable for injuries or deaths caused due to their actions. 

However, according to Jonathan Simon – associate dean of Berkeley Law’s Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program – Chauvin has a real chance at an acquittal, despite video evidence and multiple eyewitness accounts. While Floyd’s family has already settled for a record $27 million in a civil case against the city of Minneapolis, the settlement does very little to change how police are protected from civil lawsuits against them. These current NYC police reforms seek to limit defenses used by police in the nation’s most populous city that currently protect them against civil cases resulting from their work.

NYC Police Reform & Civil Suits
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office indicated that current NYC police reforms come after months of engagement with the New York City Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, along with input from community experts and other stakeholders. Such legislation is indeed groundbreaking, with Council Speaker Corey Johnson stating that it makes the city the first nationally to end civil protections against law enforcement officers, including ending qualified immunity for NYC law enforcement officers. 

Qualified Immunity
This legal principle offers protection for any government officials, including police officers, against civil suits that claim violations of people’s rights. These NYC police reforms seek to protect city residents against unreasonable search and seizure, excessive use of force and other unlawful acts by officers by removing the concept of qualified immunity as a defense against such actions. 

The history of qualified immunity stems from the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s, when groups of activists known as Freedom Riders, which included late US Congressman John Lewis, challenged segregation at bus and train stations throughout the South. Though the US Supreme Court outlawed such segregation in 1960 by overturning a verdict against a black law student in Boyton v. Virginia, local police continued to arrest protesters who entered “whites only” or “colored only” areas at terminals. One local judge sentenced a group of participating priests to jail time and fines, though the charges were dismissed upon appeal. 

When the priests sued police under the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, a jury decided against them, though the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded upon appeal that police were not immune to this federal lawsuit. The officers involved then appealed to the Supreme Court, who in 1967 struck down the suit, with then Chief Justice Earl Warren stating that “if they acted in good faith and with probable cause in making an arrest under a statute that they believed to be valid” police officers should not be held liable. 

Law enforcement officers have since used this idea of qualified immunity to limit civil cases against them, and this is the main pillar behind current NYC police reform. This legislation essentially makes it easier to file and win civil claims of wrongdoing by police or other government officials in the city. 

Effects Upon Personal Injury Cases
With the removal of qualified immunity, personal injury cases filed in the city against police can more easily move forward. In particular, two elements laid out by the 7th Amendment of the US Constitution looks at the degree of harm and intentionality of actions in civil suits against police. Though these already play prominent roles in other personal injury cases, they will now have more importance in NYC civil suits against law enforcement. 

Degree of Harm
When looking at wrongful police actions that cause harm, personal injury cases must determine whether the force used was necessary, and also include how the impact of police wrongdoing affects public confidence. A police officer is essentially a public employee, and if consequences for illegal actions committed as an employee are not made clear, such behavior will inevitably continue. The removal of protections for officers made by NYC police reform shows that this will no longer be tolerated.

Intentional Error
When employees such as police officers make deliberate decisions that conflict with law, procedures, policy or rules, courts treat these intentional actions with greater seriousness, and the consequences tend to be harsher. Within this framework, such purposeful misconduct against citizens also seriously breaches trust between police departments and the public. The responsibility of officers to not lie, steal, physically abuse or in any other way abuse their position requires that they are held accountable for any criminal conduct under the law.

Changes to Civilian Complaint Review Board
Many of the problems endemic in the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) that investigates police complaints stem from interference by the NYPD police commissioner, and these have been addressed with the current reforms. 

Consider these cases:

  • A detective restrained a handcuffed man resisting arrest with a prohibited chokehold at a supportive living facility in Brooklyn while riding in a crowded elevator.
  • A veteran NYPD lieutenant attempting to control a crowd at the wake for rapper Prodigy on the Upper East Side shoved a man into traffic.
  • Claiming the door was open, three detectives entered a Brooklyn brownstone to serve a warrant without knocking, frightening an innocent woman inside while not finding the suspect.
  • All of these incidents resulted in misconduct charges against those involved being brought to the CCRB, who substantiated each of these claims. After internal trials within the NYPD, which included testimony from multiple witnesses and with video evidence in two of these cases, judges found the officers involved guilty. Yet on each occasion, the police commissioner cleared the officers, ensuring these transgressions went unpunished.
  • Current NYC police reforms give the CCRB board final authority on disciplining miscreant law enforcement officers rather than allowing the commissioner to disregard its recommendations.

Police Opposition to Reforms
It’s not surprising that many police unions and other police associations have come out against police reform, including in New York City. Most of these organizations argue that removing qualified immunity will prevent police officers from effectively doing their jobs by allowing personal lawsuits against them for on-duty conduct. In fact, many unions actually negotiate for favorable disciplinary conditions that advantage their members, helping prevent both civil and criminal legal action against officers. 

Such protections often benefit “bad apples” among the police, however, allowing those involved in misconduct to continue working with little or no disciplinary action. It is for this reason in particular that law enforcement, as with any other profession, needs to be held accountable for illegal or unethical actions that violate people’s rights. This is also why we feel NYC police reforms are both necessary and welcome for the people of New York City. 

If you or someone you love has experienced what you believe to be misconduct by any law enforcement officers in New York City, please contact the office of Laufer Law Group. We can help establish whether your civil rights have been violated and seek compensation for you under the law. 

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