Reuters, December 2020
Encounters like these, occurring across the United States, inform persistent complaints that racial bias poisons policing in the country — complaints that coalesced into a mass movement for policing reform after the May 25 death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis cop.
A growing body of research supports the perception that police unfairly target Black Americans. They are more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested than their white compatriots. They also are more likely to be killed by police.
The aftermath of each of the three incidents examined for this article followed a common pattern. The officers who killed Stewart and roughed up Dobbins and Howse said the force they used was appropriate because the men ran, resisted or otherwise didn’t follow orders. The officers – all of them white – were cleared of wrongdoing by their departments. Local prosecutors brought no charges against them.
But Stewart’s family, Dobbins and Howse all felt wronged and hoped to hold the police accountable. The men didn’t comply, they said, because they had no idea why police engaged with them in the first place, and as Black men, they were justifiably frustrated or afraid or both. As Stewart’s mother, Mary, put it: “Luke wasn’t doing anything illegal, and now he’s dead … It was racism. It was police brutality.”
She and the others sued the police, accusing them of excessive force, a civil rights violation. The lawsuits they filed were made possible under an act of Congress passed 150 years ago for the purpose of protecting Black Americans from abuses by state and local authorities in the post-Civil War years.
Yet judges tossed out all three claims — before any jury had a chance to review the evidence — because the police involved were protected by a once-obscure legal doctrine that has become a flashpoint in this year of racial unrest: qualified immunity.