Chopped: Will Seattle Officials Now Claim Immunity From Lawsuits After Opposing Such Defenses For Police Officers?

Below is my column in The Hill on the new lawsuit against Seattle for its allowing the establishment of an autonomous zone within the city called CHOP.  According to the compliant, what Mayor Jenny Durkan called “a summer of love” proved instead to be a month of mayhem resulting in deaths, robberies and sexual assaults. Now the city may be relying an immunity defense despite leaders opposing such defenses for individual police officers.

Here is the column:

A year ago, Seattle was in the midst of what its mayor, Jenny Durkan, called a “summer of love” with the establishment of an “autonomous zone” called “Capitol Hill Occupied Protest,” or “CHOP.” Rioters took over a police station and were allowed to occupy an entire section of the city. At the time, I wrote that if someone sued over the resulting mayhem, Durkan and Seattle could find themselves clinging to the very legal doctrine they denounced in police brutality cases: immunity.

That has now happened with a number of state and federal lawsuits. In the latest, a suit by the mother of a young man killed during the reign of CHOP, the city is likely to argue that it has immunity for its discretionary decision-making, including abandoning parts of the city to a mob.

Donnitta Sinclair lost her son, Horace Lorenzo Anderson, across from Cal Anderson Park, which was a focus of the mob’s “re-imagining” government. City officials did nothing as the park and surrounding area became rife with crime and drugs. On June 20, Anderson, who had graduated the day before from an alternative youth-education program, was allegedly gunned down by Marcel Long, 18, after an altercation.

Due to the autonomy granted to CHOP by Durkan and the city, emergency treatment for Anderson was delayed since medical crews were treated as “foreign” in the occupied zone. Eventually, the dying Anderson was placed in a private vehicle to try to get him out of CHOP. Sinclair’s suit alleges that a “Medic One ambulance was about a block and a half away from where Anderson lay bleeding” and its crew repeatedly radioed for permission to enter the autonomous zone. When police and medical teams tried to gain entrance, they reported being met by protesters asserting their sovereign rights.

The violence in CHOP continued. A little over a week later in another shooting, a 16-year-old boy was killed, and a 14-year-old was seriously wounded. Crimes in CHOP included homicides, shootings, robberies and sexual assaults — as city officials watched and did nothing.

While first celebrated in the media as a fun “block party” with colorful art and gathering places like the “No Cop Café,” the truth about CHOP soon became clear and less popular. Durkan then belatedly ordered the police to restore control of the area.

For police officers, the city’s defense may seem as familiar as it is frustrating. This is the flip side to lethal-force cases such as last month’s shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant, 16, in Columbus, Ohio, in which Officer Nicholas Reardon used lethal force to stop the stabbing of another girl. In the case of CHOP, Durkan and other Seattle officials decided not to act despite deaths, sexual assaults and other crimes. They will now argue that their inaction was a well-intended but admittedly unsuccessful attempt at de-escalation.

The difference, however, is that they made their decision over weeks, as victims mounted — while, in Columbus, Officer Reardon literally had seconds to decide.

As Seattle council members and Durkan were praising CHOP, there also were calls by council members to defund the police, to fire white officers, and to repeal the immunity doctrine protecting police officers. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Seattle City Council President Lorena González, council members Teresa Mosqueda, Tammy Morales and Kshama Sawant, and other elected officials in the state all called for an end to the immunity defense for police officers.

They are not alone. New York City’s council voted to end the practice, and President Biden is pushing for the U.S. Senate to enact the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which includes the elimination of qualified immunity for police officers.

The immunity doctrine protects government officials from lawsuits over their discretionary decisions and actions. In 1982, in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, the Supreme Court ruled that “government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”

How “established” is abandoning a whole section of a city to mob rule as a social experiment? A similar question could face a court if, as expected, Seattle claims it cannot be sued over deaths caused by Durkan’s decision to abandon the CHOP area.

Fortunately for Durkan, no leader previously has been so open in ceding territory to a mob. And no one had reason to state the obvious — that the first obligation of a government is to actually govern.

Some past “sovereign immunity” cases turn on the “public duty doctrine” that shields government from liability when it refuses to act to enforce laws. This applies not just figuratively but literally to citizens held hostage due to the inaction of public officials. In 1855, the Supreme Court ruled in South v. Maryland that a sheriff was not liable after allowing a gang to hold a man hostage over unpaid money; the court held that the sheriff owed his duty to the public rather than to individual citizens.

While sovereign immunity claims and “public duty” defenses have been curtailed in some states, there remain ample protections for governments and government officials in carrying out discretionary duties. Even without immunity, the standard of negligence affords protection for officials in not just “re-imagining policing” but in re-imagining governing.

Then again, we have never encountered the likes of CHOP, or a city that wanted to imagine itself out of existence. This was not just some hostage-taking that lasted a few hours but a weeks-long self-proclaimed, government-recognized occupation by a mob. Trapped within that ceded zone were some citizens who labored under the quaint notion that the government is required to afford them basic protections and not choose between them and a popular mob.

If Seattle gets chopped in court, it will be due not to a failure of government but to a failure to govern.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates online @JonathanTurley.

143 thoughts on “Chopped: Will Seattle Officials Now Claim Immunity From Lawsuits After Opposing Such Defenses For Police Officers?”

  1. Anonymous the Stupid, you have around a dozen more responses to me that I didn’t answer. Most of them are to relieve yourself of responsibility for your own actions. You want to hide under an anonymous alias and you wish to pretend that many people are writing the posts. Those are your pretend friends.

    What are you?

    An insulting irritant
    one who can not engage critical thinking skills
    A social misfit
    one with fascistic tendencies
    ignorant of the philosophies under discussion
    A liar

    That should be good enough to respond to the ~ dozen or more that I didn’t already respond to. Enjoy.

  2. A sixteen year old boy was shot in the chop zone and commenters here tell us that there was murder happening there before so no big deal. They conveniently leave out the part where the ambulance was blocked from getting to the boy by the chop leaders. If the ambulance could have gotten to him he might be alive today. We have commenters hear who tell us about how important George Floyd’s life was but they couldn’t care less about the life of a sixteen year old black kid. They use every excuse under the sun to justify the mostly peaceful protest that murdered, set fires, raped and destroyed the lives of the business owners. While looking for a small amount of compassion for those made victims through no fault of their own we only find many here stuck in their everyday groove of excuses. They could care less as long as it wasn’t their son who was bleeding out waiting for an ambulance that never came. They have no imagination for his or his mother’s pain.

    1. Thinkitthrough, there’s more to the story than Turley states. They weren’t blocked by the protesters or those on the zone.

      “ The statement published Sunday explains why fire department units did not enter the zone, saying “our crews do not have training to go into a volatile situation to extract patients, which is why we have instructed people to walk or bring the patients to the perimeter of the crowd or transport in a private vehicle to the hospital to expedite medical treatment.”

      Then this happened,

      “ After Monday’s shooting, a protester told the Seattle Times he tried to drive one of the victims out of the zone to an ambulance, but that the rig drove away from him, leading several protesters to chase the ambulance on foot to its staging location.

      Seattle Fire Department Spokesperson Kristin Tinley said in an email to the Times that two ambulances had been en route to the staging location when they saw the vehicle “driving erratically towards them with someone riding on top of the vehicle.

      Tinley said the crew perceived vehicle “as a threat” and did not know that the patient was in the vehicle, and added that the area had not yet been secured by police. The ambulances continued to their staging location where crews were ultimately able to begin treating the victim. ”

      “ The department also explained that its safety policies preclude personnel from responding within the zone without a police escort.”

    2. Thinkitthrough, this is what Turley said,

      “ Eventually, the dying Anderson was placed in a private vehicle to try to get him out of CHOP. Sinclair’s suit alleges that a “Medic One ambulance was about a block and a half away from where Anderson lay bleeding” and its crew repeatedly radioed for permission to enter the autonomous zone. When police and medical teams tried to gain entrance, they reported being met by protesters asserting their sovereign rights.”

      Turley LIED. The ambulance wasn’t met by protesters asserting their sovereign rights. They were trying to take the victim TO the ambulance which it saw as a group of people chasing it away.

      Ambulances were allowed in, what stopped them was a policy the fire department had about not being trained to enter in such situations.

      Turley claims an ambulance would have been treated as “foreign” without any proof of fact. I just posted the actual incident and how it played out. Turley is being a little too liberal with the facts here.

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