Rock County law enforcement leaders said during a virtual meeting Monday night that they are against eliminating qualified immunity and that “no-knock” search warrants are allowed locally but very rare.
“Justice in Policing” was the topic Monday for the latest round of “Courageous Conversations,” a monthly discussion series put on by Community Action of Rock & Walworth Counties, the Diversity Action Team of Rock County and YWCA Rock County.
The groups surveyed police departments in Janesville, Beloit and Milton and the Rock County Sheriff’s Office with a series of questions inspired by police reform efforts sparked by recent, widely seen killings at the hands of police officers.
Clinton’s police chief was present during the meeting Monday, but that department was not listed in the survey responses.
One of the 11 questions was if qualified immunity should be eliminated.
Qualified immunity is a Supreme Court doctrine that shields officers from liability—even if an officer violates someone’s rights—unless there is “clearly established” law from a prior case with the same circumstances.
The topic has come up in a lawsuit that was filed after a Walworth County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a passenger in a car during a botched drug bust in East Troy in 2016. A decision has not yet come on that matter.
Activists and some politicians—on both sides of the political spectrum—have called for an end to qualified immunity because they say it largely protects police from accountability even when the acts in question are unconstitutional.
But leaders from local police departments on Monday echoed arguments others in law enforcement have made in support of qualified immunity.
They say eliminating the doctrine would open officers up to too much liability and lead some to second-guess complicated and split-second decisions.
Beloit Police Department Capt. Andre Sayles said if an officer doesn’t have “malice intent behind what they’re doing” and they’re trying to protect themselves or others, they should be covered.
“I think if we eliminate this, we’re going to lose a lot of great officers in our rank and file,” he said.
Still, he said “discussion needs to be had.”
All four surveyed agencies were against eliminating qualified immunity, but Milton Police Chief Scott Marquardt differentiated himself in how he said the idea deserves scrutiny.
He said there have been some “egregious” examples that he has read about that he “can’t believe” fit under qualified immunity.
“I do think it needs to be looked at,” he said. “The pendulum has swung a little bit too far.”
Marquardt later said because qualified immunity is a legal doctrine, it needs to be addressed at legislative and judicial levels, not through departments’ policies.
Another one of the several topics that came up both in the survey (the responses of which can be found on the Community Action website) and during Monday’s meeting was “no-knock” warrants.
The topic came to national prominence after the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor in March in Louisville, Kentucky. Plainclothes police, who had such a warrant, shot her in her apartment.
Her boyfriend has said he did not know the people who entered the home just after midnight were police and fired one shot that hit an officer’s leg. Officers fired and shot Taylor at least eight times.
Louisville eventually banned “no-knock” warrants.
Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore said to get a “no-knock” warrant, a judge needs to be convinced. He said he doesn’t remember an instance in which Janesville police used such a warrant.
Moore said he sees a possible situation, such as a kidnapping, where the safety need “is so high” that they need such a warrant. But he said they are in the process of changing their policy to require a deputy chief to sign off on the warrant and not just a judge.
“The time we decide that we would never need them and say we’ll never use them is about the time we’re going to need one,” Moore said, later adding that he would not anticipate seeing them called for in a drug case.
Michael Schultz, chief of the Clinton Police Department, said he spent 30 years working in Rockford, Illinois, and has been involved in executing more than 100 search warrants. He didn’t recall any being of the “no-knock” variety.
The sheriff’s office reported in the survey that a captain of detectives “could only remember about two of these warrants being written in the past 10 years.” But neither of them were actually served without announcing beforehand, the survey response states.
Kelly Mattingly, a local defense attorney, said he remembers such warrants being used in his 35 years on the job, but he agreed that they haven’t been used lately.
Marquardt, the Milton chief, said a warrant would come if there was a demonstrable safety issue to someone inside a location or the possibility of evidence being destroyed.
But the no-knock element can create a dangerous situation for police, the subjects of the warrant and even uninvolved bystanders, like what happened in Louisville.
“Are we setting ourselves up for the use of force by us or by the person who is frankly scared to death and is reacting to that?” Marquardt asked. “Avoiding those situations as a whole when we can, I think, is appropriate.”