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Tensions erupt in Louisiana House in debate about policing

Republican Tony Bacala's talk of police dying at a higher rate than African Americans sparked a fiery rebuttal from Democratic Rep. Ted James.

BATON ROUGE, La. — An effort to review police tactics and curtail the use of excessive force after the death of George Floyd sparked renewed tensions Wednesday in the Louisiana House, where white Republicans continue to push back against allegations of racial bias in policing. 

House lawmakers unanimously agreed to create the Police Training, Screening and Deescalation Task Force — but only after striking out language that mentioned Floyd's death in Minnesota and that described Black men as more likely to be killed by police than white men.

White Republican lawmakers sought the language removal, with an amendment from House GOP leader Blake Miguez of Erath. Rep. Ted James, the Baton Rouge Democrat handling the legislation in the House, agreed to the rewrite. 

The legislation seemed to be easing to bipartisan passage without much debate until Republican Rep. Tony Bacala, a retired sheriff's deputy from Prairieville, spoke.

"I think we are now having conversations that we need to have about a few bad actors in a wonderful profession from which I came," he said.

Watch the video below

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Then, Bacala challenged data stripped out of the legislation that described Black men as three times more likely than white men to be killed by police. He said police officers die in the line of duty at a higher rate.

"If we're going to talk, let's talk. Let's don't limit what we're willing to speak about to things that only some people want to speak about," Bacala said.

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James suggested those comments breached an agreement House leaders had reached behind the scenes to win House passage of the legislation by Democratic Sen. Cleo Fields, which won Senate support without controversy. 

"If we wanted to fully have a conversation, we shouldn't have watered down the damn bill," said James, his voice rising. 

In a fiery speech, the Black lawmaker said many police officers aren't held accountable when they use excessive force against African Americans, but get put on leave only to later return to duty.

"We all know that police officers get murdered. But you know what happens to the people that murder police officers? If they survive, they get arrested. You know what happens to police officers that kill people that look like me?" James said, directing his comments to Miguez and Bacala. "They get a taxpayer-funded vacation." 

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The idea of setting up a task force to make recommendations to lawmakers about how to improve police training and tactics, address misconduct and recognize racial bias by officers was prompted by Floyd's death. 

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. His death has prompted a national debate about police tactics and the use of excessive force. 

Several white House lawmakers had raised objections earlier in the session to a similar study group proposal from James. They objected to language that suggested police brutality was more prevalent against people of color and that questioned the criminal justice system's treatment of minorities. One white lawmaker, Republican Rep. Dodie Horton of Haughton, called the language racist. 

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On the House floor Wednesday, James told his colleagues that the task force legislation could "have filled up five pages with names" of examples of African Americans mistreated by the police. Across several minutes, James listed examples of disparate treatment from police depending on the race of the person involved in the interaction.

"I will concede that there is an issue with police brutality period," he said. "Way too often, when the victim of that brutality is an African American, that officer skates."

Bacala said he wasn't aware of any deal to gain passage of the bill that involved not publicly debating or discussing the contents. 

"Rep. James, if you're offended by the comments, I apologize," he said.

The 99-0 House vote sends the task force legislation back to the Senate for review of the changes that stripped Floyd's name and the other language from the measure. Organizations representing the state's sheriffs, police chiefs and district attorneys are backing Fields' proposal.

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Senate Concurrent Resolution 7: www.legis.la.gov

Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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