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Analysis: Emotions high as La. lawmakers debate policing
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As the nation grapples with its past and present, Louisiana lawmakers are having the same conversations happening around the country, about police tactics, excessive force and racial bias.
Emotions are spilling out in a special session that was aimed at business recovery from the coronavirus outbreak but that fell in the middle of a national outcry stemming from the death of George Floyd and other African American men and women before him.
The talks have spurred tears, anger and tensions in committee hearings as Louisiana’s black lawmakers seek systemic change in policing. What appears likely to emerge from the session is a task force to make recommendations — and an intention to keep legislative focus on the subject.
Rep. Jason Hughes, a New Orleans Democrat, spoke to his colleagues after several House committee hearings dealing with issues of policing.
“Those conversations have painful. Those conversations have been emotional,” he said. “But those conversations have been deeply necessary.”
Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, declared in a hearing Thursday that he had cried more in the Louisiana Capitol across the last week than he had over his nine-year tenure as a lawmaker.
James proposed a study of police tactics in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. Floyd, an African American man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into the handcuffed man’s neck even as he pleaded for air.
James could only get support of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee after agreeing to the demands of several white lawmakers that he strip a reference to Floyd and strike out language describing “the deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers in recent years.”
The white lawmakers called the original draft of the legislation offensive. Rep. Dodie Horton, a Haughton Republican, called it a “racist document.” Black members of the committee responded in the tense hearing that a policing study cannot ignore racial disparities in police use of force or the country’s long history of racism.
Days later, Republicans on the House civil law committee stalled a bill by Rep. Edmond Jordan, a Baton Rouge Democrat, that would have stripped the wide-ranging immunity available to law enforcement officers as a defense against damage claims for wrongful death or injury.
The emotional hearing drew people of color describing accusations of police misconduct and fear of interacting with officers. More than a dozen black lawmakers seeking passage of the measure stood together in the room, only to watch the bill fail. Some left the room crying.
But they received a pledge from the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association to work on “meaningful police accountability.” And the next day, the sheriffs organization sat in another House committee room supporting a plan by Sen. Cleo Fields to create a study group to make recommendations about how to address misconduct and recognize racial bias by officers.
The Baton Rouge Democrat’s legislation to create the Police Training, Screening and Deescalation Task Force has received unanimous support in the Senate and awaits debate on the House floor. Fields’ proposal still has language referencing Floyd’s death and the use of excessive force against racial minorities.
Rep. Tony Bacala, a Prairieville Republican, challenged data used in Fields’ legislation that described black men as three times more likely than white men to be killed by police. Bacala, a retired sheriff’s deputy, suggested police officers die in the line of duty at a higher rate.
But he also said Louisiana needs to combat police use of excessive force and ensure that officers removed from one police agency for improper actions don’t get hired by another. Later in the same hearing, he told colleagues: “We’re having to reckon with actions that are far from acceptable.”
Black legislators said they are finding reasons to be hopeful about where the talks could lead.
“While we might not have agreed, one thing that I saw throughout this week, throughout this entire body has been respect,” Hughes said. “I’ve seen a body that has been willing to listen to each other, has been willing to learn from each other, has been willing to grow from each other.”
The discussions are just beginning.
The task force, if approved, would have to start meeting by Aug. 15, and Fields has promised to bring police accountability legislation in 2021 that would ban use of chokeholds, require police body cameras and enact new penalties for law enforcement agencies with repeated misconduct incidents.
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