Simply creating a task force to study law enforcement training and misconduct issues amid a national discussion about racial bias in policing drew sharp tensions in the Louisiana House over the summer. Months later, lawmakers will wade into the thorny conversation again armed with that task force’s suggestions for change.
The 18 recommendations backed by the Police Training, Screening and De-escalation Task Force will lead to bills for lawmakers to consider in their regular session that begins in mid-April.
The proposals include changes to the handling of complaints against police officers, new limits on chokeholds and no-knock warrants, requirements for anti-bias training and reduction of certain legal protections for law enforcement. They would require detailed policies for when body cameras and dash cameras must be turned on by officers who have them and stepped-up minority recruitment efforts for police departments.
“Hopefully, we can get something meaningful passed,” said Sen. Cleo Fields, the Baton Rouge Democrat whose legislation set up the study group.
Black lawmakers’ push to form an outside advisory panel to hash out policing issues and make suggestions was aimed at getting buy-in from critical groups in advance, in the hopes of rallying support for change. The 25-member study group included people on different sides of the issues discussed: lawmakers, law enforcement representatives, university professors and other community organization leaders. Organizations representing the state’s sheriffs, police chiefs and district attorneys supported creation of the task force.
“Nobody in this room wants anything but best practices,” Rep. Tony Bacala, a Republican retired sheriff’s deputy from Prairieville and task force member, said during the group’s final meeting.
The task force was formed to propose ideas on training, screening, racial bias recognition, penalties for misconduct and other measures deemed “necessary to restore the public’s trust that the law enforcement community is serving and protecting all the citizens of Louisiana in a fair and unbiased manner.”
State lawmakers around the country are debating law enforcement tactics after recent high-profile cases involving the deaths of Black people at the hands of police.
More than 300 bills involving police oversight, discipline, standards, technology, training, use of force standards and other changes have been filed in statehouses across at least 25 states for consideration this year, according to a database from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Fields pushed for Louisiana’s task force creation after George Floyd’s death in Minnesota. Floyd, an African American man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into the handcuffed man’s neck for several minutes even as he pleaded for air. That prompted protests around the nation, including in several Louisiana cities.
Four years earlier, Baton Rouge saw weeks of protests over the shooting death of Alton Sterling, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer. Meanwhile, the Louisiana State Police is facing allegations of lies and cover-ups involving Ronald Greene, a Black man who died in State Police custody after a car chase near Monroe. And an Associated Press review of State Police records found at least a dozen instances over a three-year period in which employees forwarded racist emails on their official accounts or demeaned minority colleagues.
Legislation setting up the task force on policing won unanimous support from the House and Senate in a June special session. But while the idea sailed through the Senate easily, it caused controversy and tense debates among lawmakers in the House.
Passage in the House came only after white Republican lawmakers — who repeatedly resisted suggestions of racial bias in policing — removed language that mentioned Floyd’s death and that described Black men as more likely to be killed by police than white men.
Several white lawmakers also objected to language in a different study group proposal by Democratic Rep. Ted James of Baton Rouge — which was shelved in favor of Fields’ legislation — that suggested police brutality was more prevalent against people of color and that questioned the criminal justice system’s treatment of minorities. Republican Rep. Dodie Horton of Haughton called that language racist.
Debate over the task force’s recommendations in the two-month legislative session will test whether the study group approach helps ease the path to make changes to policing policies in Louisiana — or whether it just sets up another round of contentious arguments.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.