The war on cops playing out in federal court 

We have historically maintained an important social contract with our law enforcement officers, whereby we afford them protection against personal liability in civil lawsuits for actions they carry out in good faith on our behalf — the legal manifestation of this is qualified immunity. 

The job of a modern day law enforcement officer is difficult and dangerous and involves risks that the vast majority of people choose not to take — like attempting to arrest armed and dangerous criminals. In recent years, due to a decided shift in activism against law enforcement, those situations have become even more dangerous for our officers, both physically and legally. 

Until recently, officers could trust that if they acted in good faith of established law and policy, their actions would be defended, and their livelihoods would not be placed in jeopardy. That trust has been shattered, and its impact on the well-being of the law enforcement profession cannot be overstated.

This week a Federal District Court Judge in Minnesota, Eric Tostrud, issued an Opinion and Order denying Minneapolis Police (MPD) Officer Mark Hanneman qualified immunity in a civil lawsuit brought against Officer Hanneman and the City of Minneapolis. The Order also denied the City’s motion to dismiss the case in its entirety.

The lawsuit stems from a 2022 incident in which Officer Hanneman shot and killed Amir Locke during a court ordered search warrant the MPD SWAT team was executing in Minneapolis. The search was part of an investigation into a recent St. Paul murder involving a high-powered firearm. During the search, Locke pointed a handgun at Officer Hanneman, which was captured on body cam video, and Officer Hanneman shot and killed Locke.

The case amplified criticism of the use of “no-knock entries” during search warrants, as detractors of the tactic argued that Locke was confused and unable to make proper decisions some 9 seconds after police entered the apartment, repeatedly announcing “police — search warrant.” 

Critics also pointed to the fact that Locke was not the subject of the investigation — an irrelevant argument as the officers had no way of knowing that when Locke pointed a gun at them.

Officer Hanneman’s use of deadly force was clearly justifiable and necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm to him and/or his fellow officers. It was also carried out in good faith, and in conformity to MPD policy and established law dealing with deadly force. 

The incident was thoroughly investigated by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and a joint report by the Hennepin County Attorney and the Minnesota Attorney General laid out justification for Officer Hanneman’s actions, and described why no criminal charges were warranted.

Judge Tostrud’s ruling laid out his justification for denying Officer Hanneman qualified immunity, and denying the City’s motion to dismiss claims against the City.

The decision leaves open two possibilities to remedy the situation. One, the City could, and should, appeal the decision to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, and two, the City could persuade Judge Tostrud through discovery to dismiss the case at the summary judgement stage of the lawsuit.

It is understandable that in a case where an officer was found criminally guilty of violating someone’s constitutional rights, the government wouldn’t afford that same officer qualified immunity. But that isn’t the case with Officer Hanneman, or another recent case involving a Washington County Sheriff’s deputy who shot a killed a man in a suicide by cop situation in 2018. That deputy, Brian Krook, was acquitted of criminal wrongdoing, but has been sued by the decedent’s family. Last summer, Federal Judge Michael Davis ruled that Deputy Krook was not entitled to qualified immunity. The decision was appealed and just this month, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals denied that appeal.

Denying these two law enforcement officers qualified immunity is a big deal — something that hasn’t happened in our courts, historically, but has now happened twice in the past year. Sadly, it’s just what the anti-police movement has been seeking in their ill-conceived effort to destroy law enforcement, and these decisions are likely to encourage even more attacks on the protection of qualified immunity.

The decision to deny Officer Hanneman and Deputy Krook qualified immunity will make the effort to recruit and retain competent and qualified law enforcement officers far more difficult. 

Who will be willing to do what we ask of our law enforcement officers, absent the commonsense protection against civil liability for good faith action? What will the impact on our collective public safety be if we don’t end this absurd betrayal of our peacekeepers?

We are witnessing the answers to those questions in the form of a massive recruiting and retention crisis in law enforcement, the related reduction in pro-active law enforcement, and the resulting “new norm” for violent crime rates which remain far above pre-2020 levels.