Falmouth Police Chief Edward Dunne is responding to questions about qualified immunity, police funding, and other issues under scrutiny nationally as part of a renewed push for racial justice in the United States.
Dunne fielded questions from a panel of local residents during a televised forum hosted by No Place for Hate - Falmouth.
The Rev. Will Mebane of St. Barnabas Church said that until recently, he wasn’t completely familiar with qualified immunity — which shields police and other officials from civil lawsuits based on their actions on the job — but he now sees problems with it.
“As I understand it — and you can correct me if I’m off base — the police officers are given a certain degree of immunity protection that makes it very difficult for prosecutors and judges to hold them accountable for things they have done in the line of duty that may have been due to racism,” he said.
Dunne said qualified immunity protects all government workers — not just police — from civil lawsuits, and he emphasized that it does not apply if the person violates clearly established laws or someone’s constitutional rights.
Without it, he said, more police officers would second-guess themselves and get hurt or killed.
He cited the shooting of Sgt. Michael Chesna of Weymouth as an example of the kind of incident that could become more common if officers second-guess themselves.
“I mean, when you pull up to a scene and somebody’s holding a rock, you think you’re going to die from a rock?” he said. “And when Sergeant Chesna was hit with that rock, the suspect then came over and took his gun and killed him.”
The Massachusetts Senate passed a police reform bill early Tuesday that limits lawsuit protections for police, but does not remove qualified immunity. The House was scheduled to hold a hearing Friday.
Marie Younger Blackburn, CEO of Driven: Cape Cod's Conference for Women, moderated the No Place for Hate panel.
In addition to Dunne and Mebane, the panel included Megan English Braga, chair of the Falmouth Select Board; Onjalé Scott Price, chief operating officer of Mizar Imaging; and Bill Hough, publisher of the Enterprise newspapers.
Braga, a defense attorney, said the important thing about qualified immunity is how the judicial system applies the concept.
Speakers also discussed how the Falmouth Police Department could do more to address the mental health and substance issues underlying many police calls.
Mebane asked if the department could redirect money to those services instead of hiring more officers.
In response, Dunne said clinicians do follow-up alongside a plainclothes police officer after a call, but they can’t replace an officer.
“They’re not going to go to those calls, nor should they, because of the chances of, you know, harm to them,” he said.
He said he would like to have a clinician on staff, similar to the domestic violence advocate, who is a civilian working in the department.
Dunne said the department has received a grant to begin purchasing in-car cameras, but the cost of data storage makes body cameras difficult to implement.
He said the department views ethical service to a diverse community as central to its mission.