Trump vows to indemnify the police. Experts say that’s already reality in most departments.
Donald Trump has recently promised to give police officers blanket protections from lawsuits he claims could upend their livelihoods, a vow some experts and civil rights advocates said is misleading because most officers are already shielded from financial liability.
As he seeks a return to the White House, the former Republican president has repeatedly said that he would expand financial protections for officers when it comes to litigation they could face as a result of their conduct on the job.
“I’m also going to indemnify all police officers and law enforcement officials throughout the United States from being destroyed by the radical left for taking strong action on crime,” Trump said Tuesday at a campaign event in Waterloo, Iowa. “These are people, they want to destroy them because they want to put criminals away.”
“They’re the greatest people, the police,” Trump added. “They’re under threat of losing their pension, their house and their family and losing everything.”
Indemnification, in legal terms, refers to when an individual’s legal damages and typically their legal defense are paid for by another entity. Legal experts say the vast majority of police officers are already virtually indemnified by the cities and counties they represent, noting that any additional changes would likely need to first go through Congress.
“At the highest level, Trump is simply wrong to suggest that police anywhere in the United States are losing their pensions, homes or families because of civil rights litigation,” said Patrick Jaicomo, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil rights law firm. “Police are already indemnified from liability and provided free legal representation in almost all lawsuits brought against them — setting aside the fact that they are also shielded by the court-created doctrine of qualified immunity.”
Under the doctrine of qualified immunity, police are protected unless courts find they committed a “clearly established” constitutional violation.
A Trump campaign spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests to clarify what the former president is proposing. Trump himself has not gone into specifics, part of a pattern of making broad, straightforward-sounding campaign promises without addressing details that turn out to be complicated in practice.
His pledge to indemnify police officers has become a frequent applause line with conservative crowds. While speaking at the New York Young Republican Club gala earlier this month, Trump said: “We are going to do something that I will say is slightly controversial, but it shouldn’t be. We are going to indemnify policemen and precincts and states and cities from being sued.” At a recent campaign event in Reno, Trump said: “We’re going to pay them for the costs, for their lawyers.”
And in a Friday interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Trump claimed that the threat of a lawsuit hampers police officers from doing their jobs and declared he would give officers “a form of immunity.”
Trump’s remarks come amid a polarizing national debate over policing in America, spurred by the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and other acts of police brutality in recent years. The former president has sought to position himself as a staunch supporter of law enforcement in the face of some calls to overhaul police practices to safeguard against excessive force, and he earned the endorsement of several police unions in 2020.
At the same time, Trump has criticized law enforcement as he faces four indictments and 91 criminal charges, portraying himself as a victim of a weaponized Justice Department. While he has long touted himself as the “law and order” candidate, Trump has also demonized prosecutors he views as opposing him, and he often defended police departments against allegations of bias or misconduct.
As president, in response to the protests that began after Floyd’s killing, Trump tweeted: “Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase used in 1967 by Miami’s White police chief that was viewed as inciting violence. The phrase was also used by segregationist George Wallace when he ran for president in 1968. Amid backlash to the tweet, which Twitter flagged as “glorifying violence,” Trump followed up by tweeting: “Looting leads to shooting … It was spoken as a fact, not as a statement.”
In February, Trump released a plan that would require local law enforcement agencies that receive Justice Department grants to use stop-and-frisk — a controversial policing tactic that has been criticized for discriminating against racial minorities and that a federal judge in New York ruled unconstitutional in 2013.
And during the California GOP convention in September, Trump declared: “We will immediately stop all of the pillaging and theft. Very simply: If you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store. Shot.”
Some civil rights advocates argue that Trump’s calls for aggressive policing tactics and further protections from lawsuits could embolden officers to abuse their power.
“The statement to me is a disturbing endorsement of police brutality and police misconduct,” said Michael Steinberg, director of the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative at the University of Michigan Law School. “Trump is essentially telling the police: Don’t worry about discriminating against people of color, don’t worry about beating up people, don’t worry about making baseless arrests, and if you get sued and lose, we’ll pick up the bill.”
Joanna Schwartz, a law professor at UCLA, published a study in 2014 on police indemnification practices in 81 jurisdictions over six years. The report found that governments or their insurance companies, not individual officers, paid 99.98 percent of the costs, and that officers “almost never contributed anything to settlements or judgments — even when indemnification was prohibited by law or policy, and even when officers were disciplined, terminated, or prosecuted for their conduct.”
Critics of qualified immunity say the doctrine makes it much more difficult to win lawsuits against officers for misconduct: According to a report cited by the Congressional Research Service, government officials prevailed in 16 out of 18 cases that reached the Supreme Court from 2000 to 2016. Defenders argue that police officers need protection in situations that can change rapidly.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, a union representing officers, said the current status of indemnification is “spotty and threatened in many places,” citing a 2020 Colorado law as an example of, in his view, a place that “dramatically cut back on the protections an officer has in terms of civil liability.” (The Fraternal Order of Police endorsed Trump in 2020 and has not yet made an endorsement for 2024.)
Pasco also stated that Trump’s call for indemnifying officers was not entirely clear. “I assume what he meant was that in cases involving civil liability that they would be indemnified by the community they serve, which we agree to,” Pasco said. “But I don’t know what mechanism he intends to use to do that or if he’s even thought about that.”
Jason Johnson, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit that provides funding for the legal defense of police officers, acknowledged that “in most instances law enforcement officers are indemnified by their employers.” (Johnson said his organization primarily addresses criminal cases).
“Sometimes candidates will make kind of a broad policy statement just to kind of make it clear where they stand on an issue and I kind of think that’s the point he was trying to make,” Johnson added.
Trump and Republicans have also campaigned heavily on the issue of crime in recent years, portraying themselves as tough on crime and frequently attacking Democrats as soft and ineffective.
The former president has often made exaggerated statements about crime rates in Democratic-run cities. He has described D.C. as a “nightmare of murder and crime” and said “crime is rampant and out of control like never before.” In Reno, he vowed that “safety will again be restored, so that our children can go out with their parents, mother and father, and play in the park without being beat up, molested or shot.”
According to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, for 69 of America’s largest cities and counties, homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault went down from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 compared with 2022. In D.C., violent crime has gone up nearly 40 percent this year, compared with this time last year, driven in large part by increases in homicides and carjackings.
On Trump’s remarks that police officers are under threat, Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit think tank, echoed that police officers are “virtually always indemnified, except in egregious cases” but added that the “perception is that cops need to be protected and they’re not protected now.”
“The narrative out there about policing is challenging, and I think he’s feeding into that,” Wexler said. “But the way he could be most helpful is helping cops stay out of trouble, and that means better selection, better training. … We know what can prevent officers engaging in wrongful acts. We ought to focus on the front end, not the back end.”
Patrice Willoughby, senior vice president of global policy and impact at the NAACP, a leading civil rights group, said Trump’s recent comments “reflect a lack of understanding of how policing actually works in the country.”
“If we really want to combat crime, we have to focus on the root causes of crime in communities and also ensure that officers have the training needed to understand the communities that they’re policing, and that they’re better connected through community-based policing,” Willoughby said.
Tom Jackman and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.