BATON ROUGE, La. — The chance to change police practices in Louisiana did not seem very good when Rep. Ted James presented a resolution to study them shortly after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer.
James had to agree in advance to demands from Republicans to remove Floyd’s name from the resolution.
One Republican, Rep. Tony Bacala of Prairieville, was not privy to that conversation. And when the resolution came up for debate on the House floor, Bacala, a former chief sheriff’s deputy in Ascension Parish, said language in the resolution about blacks being three times more likely to be killed by law enforcement officers than whites addressed only one side of the issue.
“If we’re going to talk, let’s talk,” Bacala said. “Let’s don’t limit what we’re willing to speak about to things that only some people want to speak about,” he said. “Of 800,000 law enforcement officers in this country, in that same period of time, 584 were killed in the line of duty, which means that the rate that cops die in the line of duty is 40 times higher than blacks.”
“Tony,” James responded, “I was pepper sprayed in handcuffs by a police officer. A white one.”
James also described being questioned by law enforcement officers for standing with four other black men outside of a barber shop in Baton Rouge. The questioning only ended when James handed the officer a card that identified him as a state legislator.
From that tense start, James, Bacala and Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, who wrote the resolution, forged a partnership that enabled a 25-person task force to come up with more than 20 recommendations to make policing more equitable and push many of them through the Legislature in the session that ended Thursday.
With support from Bacala, Fields and James were able to get most of the Republican lawmakers to agree to ban choke holds unless an officer reasonably believes he or she is in grave danger, limit the use of no-knock search warrants and require that dashboard cameras in police cars be automatically activated when the car’s emergency lights go on.
Bacala also supported James, the chairman of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, on a bill that shortens the time for police officers accused of abuse to secure representation and provides more time for investigations of them.
Bacala himself brought—and passed—a bill to require police agencies to create policies aimed at recruiting minority officers and to implement anti-bias training programs in order to receive state grants.
But even though Bacala had expressed support during task force meetings for a compromise on another key issue—the degree to which officers should have immunity from civil lawsuits alleging excessive force—he voted against limiting that immunity when the issue came up in the House. The bill still cleared the House 53-42, but it died in a Senate committee.
Under current law, it is difficult to succeed in a civil lawsuit against police officers who were acting in their official capacities.
Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, brought a bill to end officers’ ability to use this so-called qualified immunity as a shield in cases where someone died or was injured and a court concludes that the officer did not act reasonably.
Under the bill, police officers who acted reasonably, meaning their conduct met certain standards, would still be able to use qualified immunity as a protection. Only officers who failed to do so would have lost that legal protection.
The Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association supported the bill, but various police officials testified against it. This was the second year in a row that Jordan was unsuccessful in an attempt to narrow the use of qualified immunity as a legal defense.
"Qualified immunity has almost become absolute immunity," he said at the Senate committee hearing.
Jordan also brought up the bodycam footage of Ronald Greene, who was killed by Louisiana State Police officers in 2019 near Monroe. The troopers told Greene’s family that he had died after crashing into a tree.
"It just stayed with me that these officers could know they had a camera on them and lie, not only to the family but lie on the police report," said Jordan. "The level of oppression and exhaustion that we as African Americans feel in this state, I don't know how else to make you empathize with that."
The Greene case also prompted James to file a resolution asking Louisiana State Police to adopt the same policies that the task force had recommended for local police forces.
“If we’re going to ask municipal officers to do something, I think State Police should adopt similar policies,” James said.
That resolution passed 54-40 in the House and 36-0 in the Senate.
Criminal-justice advocates also made progress in other areas. The Legislature agreed to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, and Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday he is “interested” in signing the bill.
But members of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus were upset that a House committee killed a bill that would have provided new hearings for 1,500 people who were convicted by non-unanimous juries before Louisiana changed its requirement to unanimous jury verdicts in cases involving serious crimes.
And as the session ended, James complained that the State Police had “sabotaged” his bill to automate the process of expunging criminal records, which could have expanded employment opportunities for thousands of Louisianans with criminal records.
State Police officials said they were worried about the cost of automating the process, and Republicans on a House committee backed away from the proposal.
“The agency that beats the hell out of people and covers it up doesn’t want to make time to expunge people’s records,” James told Julie O’Donoghue of the Louisiana Illuminator news site.
“If State Police put just a fraction of the energy they put into covering up murder into trying to help” with this proposal, “they would have made it happen,” he added.