Manchester Police Chief Alan Aldenberg clearly sent the wrong message with his recent recruitment pitch to come to New Hampshire because police officers will have qualified immunity.

First, some background: The chief is a very experienced police officer with an excellent record of service. He has two master’s degrees in justice administration and attended the FBI National Academy. He’s doing a tough job in our largest city.

But, what is especially disappointing is that, after all this training, he somehow believes that Manchester or New Hampshire offers something unique to police in the form of qualified immunity. In fact, qualified immunity applies to all 18,000 police departments and law enforcement agencies across the country, because it is based on a United States Supreme Court Opinion from the 1980s.

Thus, police in Dryfork, Iowa, and Manchester have the same qualified immunity rules. Therefore, we offer no better recruitment angle than Dryfork.

Moreover, the chief’s pitch shows a misunderstanding of the limits of qualified immunity. It is not a “get out of jail free” card. Rather, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Graham v. Connor that the use of force by an officer must be objectively reasonable under the circumstances.

Thus, the judicial function is not to say, “oh, a police officer has been sued and they are immune; therefore, we will dismiss the case.” Rather, the judge must determine whether, under all the facts, a reasonable officer would have done the same thing.

As an example, kicking and beating a handcuffed suspect is going to get you in front of a jury no matter where you live or work in the United States. That use of force is not reasonable under previously decided court cases.

Overhyping judicial immunity for new recruits gives police officers the sense that one of their job perks is that they can unload their stress on a citizen and be immune from suit. That is not the law, and it is not reality.

Stress caused a state trooper to shoot and kill a woman in Manchester in 2013. The federal judge denied him qualified immunity, and the state paid $750,000 to her estate to resolve the case.

The reality for all of us was set forth in May by a report on behalf of 14 police unions who called for a series of changes in public safety. In the report by the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters Union, among others, there was a recognition that, “as a result of performing their everyday duties, police officers can face unique physical and mental stress. As a professional group, officers have a disproportionately high suicide rate. In 2016, more officers died of suicide than any other cause of death in the line of duty.”

The report went on to point out that, statistically, police officers exhibit symptoms of PTSD at a higher rate than the general population. All this affects officers’ spouses, children and families, as well as the people they interact with in a very stressful environment. Rather than believe they can take it out on the public, the police need to get help when they are maxed out.

I commend the chief for his quick apology, but I am disappointed that he thought that courtroom accountability does not exist here.

Chuck Douglas is a former N.H. Superior Court and Supreme Court Justice who practices law in Concord.

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