Four years ago, Vicky Lewis was having a heart-to-heart conversation with her 17-year-old son about his future. He was killed 24 hours later.
High school senior Isaiah Lewis was just two months away from turning 18 and three weeks from graduating when he was fatally shot on April 29, 2019, by a police officer in Edmond, Oklahoma.
The day Isaiah was killed, he wasn’t acting like himself and was experiencing a mental health crisis, his mother tells Capital B. At some point, Isaiah went to his girlfriend’s house, where his behavior worsened after smoking marijuana. Police were called. As Isaiah ran away, he stripped naked and allegedly broke into a neighbor’s home. When police caught up to Isaiah to attempt to arrest him, he was ineffectively zapped with a stun gun while allegedly repeatedly punching an officer with a closed fist. When a second officer arrived on the scene, he was shot four times in the face, thighs and groin.
“He was unarmed. He wasn’t committing a crime. He was in need of assistance, and the people who are supposed to uphold, serve, and protect him were the ones who killed him,” Lewis said at a press conference last week.
Prior to his death, he wasn’t diagnosed with or showed any signs of mental illness, said Lewis, who is a licensed professional counselor at a local correctional facility.
The officers weren’t indicted and Lewis is part of a painstakingly long list of mothers navigating grief, anger and a legal fight — that could drag on for years — to hold police officers accountable.
For generations, Black Americans have seldom received justice in criminal court, and it’s more of a rarity for a police officer to be held financially accountable for their actions in civil court. Although there has been an uptick in police officers being charged for misconduct as more progressive prosecutors are elected across the country, families, legislators, and reform advocates say more must be done.
In civil court, qualified immunity has blocked families and survivors from holding an officer, who may have skirted criminal charges, financially accountable. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent during a 10-year period to settle civil lawsuits stemming from police violence, The Washington Post reported.
But mothers such as Lewis are left with a mountain of medical bills — and still waiting for some semblance of justice.
After her son’s death, she filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and the two officers involved as Oklahoma County prosecutors investigated whether charges should be filed. Months after the fatal shooting, the district attorney declined to indict the officers. Earlier this year, Isaiah’s father, Troy Levet Lewis, requested a meeting with the new district attorney to discuss reopening the case.
At trial, Lewis’ family received a victory that most families don’t usually hear: In 2021, a judge denied qualified immunity for the officer who shot Isaiah. But after the officer appealed the judge’s decision, the ruling was overturned and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The lawsuit was terminated last year.
Now, as an advocate to end qualified immunity, Lewis says it “must be abolished because it gives police officers permission to commit violent acts with impunity, especially in the Black community.”
Why end qualified immunity?
The fight for justice can come in three different forms for families and survivors of police brutality: through criminal court, civil litigation, and demands for systemic overhaul. Some may want all three. Others may feel shortchanged by a monetary payout. And it’s very rare for all three to happen.
In reality, most families and survivors of police brutality cannot afford an attorney’s retainer fee and aren’t on the radar of high-profile civil rights attorneys who can waive their costs. Then there’s a larger bulk of victims of injustice who are left with the pain of losing a loved one, or who live with the trauma of surviving police brutality without any criminal justice or financial recourse.
On the same day Tyre Nichols’ family attorney, Ben Crump, filed a $550 million federal civil rights lawsuit last week, U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts announced the reintroduction of the Ending Qualified Immunity Act. In the same week, after an Ohio grand jury declined to indict any of the eight Akron police officers who killed Jayland Walker last year, ABC News 5 Cleveland reported that the family will likely file a civil lawsuit near the anniversary of his death in June.
The proposed bill to end qualified immunity aims to eliminate the legal doctrine that was created 55 years ago this month by the U.S. Supreme Court. The bill was first introduced by former U.S. Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan following the murder of George Floyd. The legal protection is offered to law enforcement on all levels and professions, such as government officials and school administrators, that relieves them of financial responsibility if they are named as a defendant in a lawsuit.
At a press conference last week to reintroduce the bill, Pressley was joined by one of its co-sponsors — U.S. Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts — and by Lewis and other mothers whose children have been killed by police.
Now, as an advocate to end qualified immunity, Lewis says that it “must be abolished because it gives police officers permission to commit violent acts with impunity, especially in the Black community.”
The first bill received bipartisan support from 65 House Democrats, including Pressley, and one Republican co-sponsor. Once Amash, a former Republican, left office, Pressley picked up the bill and reintroduced it in 2021, but it didn’t receive the same momentum. It was co-sponsored by 41 House Democrats and no Republicans. The latest effort launched with 39 House co-sponsors and three from the Senate, as well as endorsements from dozens of organizations, including Black Lives Matter Grassroots and the Boston Herald.
Eliminating qualified immunity is also a provision under the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that has lingered in Congress since 2021. Getting rid of the legal doctrine has given many Republicans pause to get behind the sweeping police reform package, and a standalone bill is expected to get a similar reception.
“I truly do look forward to the day where people do not have to weaponize or relive their trauma in order to compel action from their government,” Pressley said during the press conference on Capitol Hill.
“Stories of harm and abuse by law enforcement are not one-offs, or rare incidents. For the Black community, in particular, these stories are not new,” she said.
“We want to be very clear that the Ending Qualified Immunity Act is meaningful, and it’s common sense. But it’s not radical. It’s a common sense thing that if you kill someone, if you commit harm, you should be held accountable,” said Melina Abdullah, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Grassroots.
“We cannot and we must not wait in vain for the Supreme Court to fix its own mistake,” Markey said. “There will be no true justice until there is racial justice, and there will be no racial justice until we can end qualified immunity once and for all in the United States of America.”
After four years of being denied justice in criminal and civil courts, Lewis told Capital B she cannot make sense as to why the systems in place deny respect and basic human decency to Black Americans who experienced police violence. She wants the lawmakers who haven’t been onboard with ending qualified immunity to put themselves in the shoes of the victim’s families. They don’t “see us to see our pain and to see our frustration. They’re just so far removed from the human experience,” Lewis said.
“Could you pass the litmus test and insert your loved one in a situation like that and arrive at the same decision? That’s what you all need to be thinking about … then maybe we can make some change.”