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The doctrine of qualified immunity has been used to protect police from civil lawsuits and trials. Here's why it was put in place. USA TODAY

For too long, our vision of public safety has perpetuated policing that endangers Black and brown people rather than protecting and serving them.

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It is time to take action at a national level on police reform. A new House and Senate bill does just that.

As former U.S. attorneys who served during the Barack Obama administration, we worked with advocacy groups, victims, community groups and police to hold individual officers accountable and to implement department-wide reforms. We used laws like the 1994 federal pattern or practice statute, passed after four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King, to address unconstitutional policing practices within entire departments. We also worked to implement the recommendations of Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which reimagined police officers as guardians of the community instead of warriors of the streets.

We have been deeply disappointed to see the current leaders of the Department of Justice abandon these efforts. As recent events have made clear, ignoring the problems associated with policing in America will not make them go away. 

Inexcusably, it took the death of George Floyd in police custody to galvanize a movement, but we are heartened by the thirst for change that has swept the country. Millions of Americans of every race have marched and demanded further reform.  And they are right: We must change our vision of public safety that, for too long, has perpetuated policing that endangers Black and brown people rather than protecting and serving them. 

Turn police reform visions into law

That’s why we support the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which would give the force of law to much of the task force’s vision. The bill includes some obvious improvements, such as data collection, training in implicit bias and de-escalation and a legal duty for other officers to intervene. In addition, from our experience in federal law enforcement, several other provisions stand out.

First, the bill would improve police accountability by eliminating the requirement in criminal civil rights prosecutions that an officer acted “willfully.” That high and rare standard was first applied to police misconduct in 1945 when a divided Supreme Court reversed the sentence of Claude Screws, a Georgia sheriff who beat to death an African American man who stole a tire. The court added a requirement that required prosecutors to prove the sheriff — and defendants in all cases since — had “an evil motive to accomplish that which the statute condemns.”

As a result, even when an officer has knowingly used excessive force, the “willful” standard is a major and inappropriate obstacle to successful prosecution. To be sure, police officers need the ability to safely perform their difficult and dangerous jobs.  But we must hold them accountable when they knowingly and unnecessarily use violence against people they are sworn to protect. We think knowing misconduct is the right standard to achieve that balance.

The bill would also provide funding for state attorneys general to engage in systemic police reform. This important local empowerment is critical when the federal government fails to exercise its own ity to do so, as occurred in Chicago when the current administration abandoned a pattern and practice case and the state had to step in.

Other key provisions of the bill would condition a police department’s receipt of federal funding and grant money on ending dangerous and potentially fatal police practices. Chokeholds, for example, involve pressure to the throat or windpipe that restricts the flow of oxygen to the brain or hinders breathing and led to the tragic deaths of Eric Garner in New York and George Floyd in Minneapolis, among others. Many departments already prohibit them, and they should be outlawed.

Seize the moment:the fierce urgency of now.” 

Barbara McQuade (@BarbMcQuade) was U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan (2010-2017). Joyce White Vance (@JoyceWhiteVance) was U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama (2009-2017). Steven M. Dettelbach (@SteveDettelbach) was U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio (2009-2016). Paul J. Fishman was U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey (2009-2017). Ronald C. Machen Jr. was U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia (2010-2015).

These former U.S. Attorneys, who also served during the Obama administration, have co-signed this op-ed:

Daniel G. Bogden, District of Nevada (2001-2007, 2009-2017)

Kenyen R. Brown, Southern District of Alabama (2009-2017)

Donald J. Cazayoux, Jr., Middle District of Louisiana (2010-2013)

Tristram J. Coffin, District of Vermont (2009-2015)

Michael W. Cotter, District of Montana (2009-2017)

Deirdre M. Daly, District of Connecticut (2013-2017)

Gregory K. Davis, Southern District of Mississippi (2012-2017)

Eileen M. Decker, Central District of California (2015-2017)

Thomas E. Delahanty II, District of Maine (1980-1981, 2010-2017)

Jenny A. Durkan, Western District of Washington (2009-2014)

William Conner Eldridge, Jr., Western District of Arkansas (2010-2015)

David B. Fein, District of Connecticut (2010-2013)

Wifredo A. Ferrer, Southern District of Florida (2010-2017)

Stephanie A. Finley, Western District of Louisiana (2010-2017)

Deborah R. Gilg, District of Nebraska (2009-2017)

R. Booth Goodwin II, Southern District of West Virginia (2010-2015)

Barry R. Grissom, District of Kansas (2010-2016)

Melinda L. Haag, Northern District of California (2010-2015)

Richard S. Hartunian, Northern District of New York (2010-2017)

Timothy J. Heaphy, Western District of Virginia (2009-2015)

Dwight Holton, District of Oregon (2010-2011)

John A. Horn, Northern District of Georgia (2015-2017)

Brendan V. Johnson, District of South Dakota (2009-2015)

B. Todd Jones, District of Minnesota (2009-2013)

William C. Killian, Eastern District of Tennessee (2010-2015)

Nicholas A. Klinefeldt, Southern District of Iowa (2009-2015)

James A. Lewis, Central District of Illinois (2010-2016)

Karen L. Loeffler, District of Alaska (2009-2017)

Kenneth Magidson, Southern District of Texas (2011-2017)

Pamela C. Marsh, Northern District of Florida (2010-2015)

Jerry E. Martin, Middle District of Tennessee (2010-2013)

Neil H. MacBride, Eastern District of Virginia (2009-2013)

Zane D. Memeger, Eastern District of Pennsylvania (2010-2016)

Patrick A. Miles, Jr., Western District of Michigan (2012-2017)

Eric Miller, District of Vermont (2015-2017)

Michael J. Moore, Middle District of Georgia (2010-2015)

Florence T. Nakakuni, District of Hawaii (2009-2017)

William N. Nettles, District of South Carolina (2010-2016)

Charles M. Oberly III, District of Delaware (2010-2017)

Wendy J. Olson, District of Idaho (2010-2017)

Michael C. Ormsby, Eastern District of Washington (2010-2017)

Carmen M. Ortiz, District of Massachusetts (2009-2017)

Channing Phillips, District of Columbia (2015-2017)

Kenneth A. Polite, Jr., Eastern District of Louisiana (2013-2017)

Timothy Q. Purdon, District of North Dakota (2010-2015)

Ripley E. Rand, Middle District of North Carolina (2010-2016)

Carole S. Rendon, Northern District of Ohio (2016-2017)

Edward L. Stanton III, Western District of Tennessee (2010-2017)

Edward J. Tarver, Southern District of Georgia (2009-2017)

Kevin W. Techau, Northern District of Iowa (2014-2017)

Anne M. Tompkins, Western District of North Carolina (2010-2015)

John W. Vaudreuil, Western District of Wisconsin (2010-2017)

Benjamin B. Wagner, Eastern District of California (2009-2016)

Thomas Walker, Eastern District of North Carolina (2011-2016)

John F. Walsh, District of Colorado (2010-2016)

Danny C. Williams, Sr., Northern District of Oklahoma (2012-2017)

Stephanie Yonekura, Central District of California (2014-2015)

You can read diverse opinions from our @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@lightfiretech.com.

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