Right now, there’s a lack of trust in law enforcement, exacerbated by a judicial doctrine known as qualified immunity, which shields rogue police officers and other public officials from liability when they mistreat citizens. This breaks my heart. As someone who champions good law enforcement, I’m speaking out against qualified immunity and in support of a bill in the State Legislature that would abolish this divisive doctrine in New York.
In 1967, I arrived in the United States from Curaçao. I married, became a citizen, had two small children, and was ready to pursue fresh opportunities in my adopted country. After living in Manhattan for four years, we bought a house in Central Islip. We were so happy to have a home of our own, and I was eager to get involved in my new community.
One of the first things I discovered was the friction between the police and our local community. I knew it didn’t have to be that way. So I started the Central Islip Community Patrol, a volunteer organization that brought together law enforcement and the community to achieve our common goal of creating a safe, thriving Town of Islip. All of us immediately got to work to make things better. And, together, we did great work.
We conceived a 24-hour anonymous hotline, where residents could report criminal incidents such as gang activity and drug deals, which were big problems at the time. I would pass these tips to the police. A new advisory board of police officers and community members worked with officers assigned to patrol neighborhoods of color, educating them on how to work alongside the people they served.
I also helped establish a COPE (Community Oriented Police Engagement) Unit. When a disturbance occurred, a COPE Unit based in the community and part of the community would respond — a solutions-oriented alternative to aggressive policing.
In this collaborative environment, that initial friction dissipated. The relationship between police and the community improved dramatically. Crime rates went down. We began to understand each other. My family grew close to many members of our local law enforcement. These officers were willing to help us, so we valued them. We recognized the police’s contribution to the health and safety of our beloved community.
What makes this model work is trust. Trust expands public safety, because public trust is the measurement of the relationship between the community and law enforcement. Recently, public unrest in moments when another unarmed person is murdered by law enforcement has created a greater awareness. As long as those police who are abusive are allowed to turn to qualified immunity when they violate someone’s rights, public safety will continue to be in jeopardy.
Qualified immunity demolishes fairness and impartiality — it gives police the ability to have lawsuits filed against them dismissed. Communities and law enforcement cannot work in solidarity when qualified immunity acts as a barrier to trust, preventing accountability for bad police behavior and closing pathways to justice for victims of abuse. Instead of fairness, there’s fear.
The bill in the State Legislature would create better working conditions for our police officers because the right to sue an officer would mend frayed relationships with our communities. That corrects an imbalance of power.
I love my community — which includes the many wonderful law enforcement officers I’ve worked with over the years. We improved public safety in Central Islip by creating a system of collaboration, understanding, and trust. I believe with all my heart that we can create this same system all over the state, by ending qualified immunity.
This guest essay reflects the views of Silvy Ovalle, a community leader from Central Islip.