A study group created by Louisiana lawmakers to discuss ways to address police misconduct issues had the formidable task of getting law enforcement leaders and groups alleging racial bias in policing to agree on substantive change.
Months of debate brought forth recommendations that would represent significant policy change and compromise amid a tense and politicized national debate about the way police officers treat people of color. The hard-fought bipartisan deals appear to be smoothing passage of the proposals in the two-month legislative session.
The bills that came from the work of the Police Training, Screening and De-escalation Task Force have started advancing so far with relative ease and little pushback, with law enforcement sitting at the table with Black lawmakers to back the measures.
“We learned a lot in the three months that we debated these issues,” said Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat who leads the Legislative Black Caucus, helped pushed for creation of the task force and is sponsoring some of the policing legislation.
The proposals would change the handling of complaints against police officers, place new limits on chokeholds and no-knock warrants and add requirements for anti-bias training. 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.
“These are compromises. Some people wanted more. Some people wanted less. Everybody agreed,” said Rep. Tony Bacala, a Republican retired sheriff’s deputy from Prairieville and task force member who is sponsoring one of the policing bills.
The Louisiana Legislature often creates task forces to punt on issues, rather than solve them, and the reports can gather dust on office shelves without leading to much change. Other study groups are created to achieve a desired set of recommendations, rather than have real debate.
But if the House and Senate give final passage to the package of policing measures, the task force on law enforcement tactics and training would prove to be among that rarer of study groups demonstrating how good-faith efforts to hash out differences can prompt change.
Black lawmakers sought to form the outside advisory panel after the death of George Floyd, an African American man in Minnesota who died after an officer pressed his knee into the handcuffed man’s neck for nine minutes.
Since then, there have been a myriad of allegations of improper behavior involving the Louisiana State Police, including claims of lies and cover-ups involving Ronald Greene, a Black man who died in State Police custody after a car chase near Monroe.
For Black lawmakers, that has only demonstrated the need for change in Louisiana’s policing laws.
The Senate voted 32-0 Thursday for one of the proposals, sponsored by Sen. Cleo Fields, the Baton Rouge Democrat whose legislation created the task force.
The measure would limit the use of chokeholds to interactions when an officer “reasonably believes he or another person is at risk of great bodily harm” or when deadly force has been authorized.
It would require a district court judge’s signature on a no-knock warrant and allow such warrants only if law enforcement establishes probable cause that entering without knocking or ringing the doorbell is “necessary to protect life and limb” of the police and occupants of the location. It also would spell out how the officer has to handle execution of the warrant.
Two policing measures sponsored by James and Bacala won easy approval from the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday and await debate on the House floor.
James’ bill would rework the process for investigating police officers and require that sustained complaints about an officer remain on file for at least 10 years.
Bacala’s proposal calls for police agencies to design policies aimed at increasing minority recruitment and to require anti-bias training for state grant eligibility. It would require suspension or revocation of a police officer’s state certification if the officer committed misconduct — a provision aimed at keeping officers fired from one police agency from moving to another.
“We hope that this demonstrates our interest in holding the bad actors accountable while elevating the best and brightest,” Shannon Dirmann, with the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, told lawmakers as she supported the bill.
Still awaiting its first hearing, scheduled for Monday, is a task force bill to limit use of certain legal protections for police officers.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.