Redford on Qualified Immunity and Moral Hazard
By David Henderson
A few weeks ago, Virginian Audrey Redford, an assistant professor of economics at Western Carolina University, learned that the Virginia House of Delegates solicited open comments on a bill to end qualified immunity in Virginia. The comments would be read aloud to the delegation. So she wrote a comment. The bill failed by a considerable margin, but she got some satisfaction from knowing that someone read her statement to the delegates. Here it is.
Qualified immunity completely alters the incentive structure for law enforcement officers. It presents a significant moral hazard problem to the community. The inability to punish an officer who misbehaves and harms members of the public creates significant distrust in the community. In no other occupation is an individual protected for “doing their job” when they wantonly step outside of what is permissible. If policymakers are at all concerned with “weeding out the bad apples” in policing organizations, this is the way to do it. The claim that policing is so dangerous that it requires officers to sometimes act in egregious ways is false. The BLS and other non-partisan organizations consistently show that many occupations are significantly more dangerous than policing, including garbage collecting. [DRH note: also farming.] Yet the same immunity is not offered to them. In reality, policymakers afford law enforcement officers such an exception because they are a powerful interest group. They lobby effectively and raise significant funds for their preferred elected officials. To the many delegates who claim to not be in the pocket of any interest group, I implore you to examine the true motivations of why you might be opposed to passing such a bill that protects villains with badges in the community. Law enforcement officials ask ordinary citizens all the time, “if you’re not breaking the law, what do you have to worry about?” Now is the time to hold them to the same standard. Who, if not you, will guard the guardians? I suspect that if legitimate means to resolve this imminent issue are not taken, the community will step in and find a way to solve it for themselves. However, delegates, that may mean they find alternatives outside of the political sphere to stand up for themselves, and we know the government doesn’t like competition.