Civil and Human Rights

Oversight Hearing on Policing Practices and Law Enforcement Accountability

CAC submitted this testimony to the House Judiciary Committee to make two points.

First, Congress has broad powers to curb unjustified police use of force pursuant to its express constitutional power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment. Indeed, as explained below, the Fourteenth Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by the American people against the backdrop of horrific massacres in which white police officers killed hundreds of African Americans in cold blood. Eliminating police killing and brutality is one of the critical purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment. As the case of George Floyd tragically highlights, we as a nation have failed to do justice to this critical part of our Constitution. One of the reasons for this failure is that the courts have never given this part of the Fourteenth Amendment its due. The Supreme Court has never once recognized that the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified against the backdrop of brutal killings of people of color by the police. Getting this history right is essential to correcting police abuses today.

Second, far too often individuals cannot obtain redress for brutal police conduct because of the judicially invented doctrine of qualified immunity. Section 1983, one of the most important civil rights laws enacted by Congress, has been rewritten by the Supreme Court to keep many suits against the police out of court. Because of this doctrine, when individuals go to court to redress police abuse of power, they almost always find that the courthouse doors are bolted shut. Congress should eliminate qualified immunity, which has eroded the enforcement of constitutional rights, undermined the rule of law, and denied justice to those victimized by the police. The lack of redress removes any incentive for police departments to properly train their officers, letting the cycle of police violence and brutality repeat over and over again. The long line of police killings of unarmed people of color, and particularly of African American men—George Floyd being just the most recent—is the result of a system that breeds police unaccountability.

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