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Louisiana House narrowly backs bid to limit officer immunity

May 12, 2021 GMT
Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, second right, charmain of the Legislative Black Caucus in Baton Rouge, talks with fellow caucus members during opening day of the Louisiana legislative session in Baton Rouge, La., Monday, April 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, second right, charmain of the Legislative Black Caucus in Baton Rouge, talks with fellow caucus members during opening day of the Louisiana legislative session in Baton Rouge, La., Monday, April 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — With no votes to spare, the Louisiana House agreed Tuesday to place new limits on police officers’ wide immunity from civil lawsuits after Black lawmakers made emotional pleas for passage of the bill aimed at addressing police misconduct.

“We live in two different Americas. We live in two different Louisianas. And some of the issues we have to face, I hope you never have to face,” Democratic Rep. Edmond Jordan, who is Black, said to his white colleagues.

The debate silenced the usually raucous House as Democratic Rep. Ted James, chairman of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, told the chamber: “Some of you think that the issue we’re trying to solve is frivolous. Some of you think that dead Black and brown bodies at the hands of police officers is frivolous.”

The House voted 53-42 for Jordan’s bill to put new restraints on qualified immunity, available to law enforcement officers as a defense against damage claims for wrongful death or injury. That was the exact number of votes needed to pass, prompting applause and hugs among Black lawmakers. Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, who won his leadership job with support from Black lawmakers, voted for the measure.

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The bill — which has divided law enforcement agencies — heads next to the Senate for debate.

Before lawmakers sent the measure to the Senate, however, they adopted language that heavily watered down the purpose, a provision seeking to discourage civil lawsuits against police officers by requiring anyone who loses in a qualified immunity lawsuit to pay all court costs and attorneys fees. Supporters intend to try to strip that provision in the Senate.

That language was added by bill opponent Rep. Bryan Fontenot, a Republican from Thibodaux who is a former police officer. He said he was trying to protect officers from “frivolous lawsuits,” but bill supporters called the language a “poison pill” aimed at gutting the measure’s impact.

Supporters of the proposal say qualified immunity is so sweeping it’s nearly impossible to hold officers accountable for excessive force when prosecutors refuse to bring criminal charges. Opponents said legal avenues exist to prosecute police for inappropriate behavior and excessive force.

House Republican leader Rep. Blake Miguez, of Erath, suggested that the changes could damage law enforcement recruitment and send the wrong message to existing officers who are doing their jobs well.

Jordan’s bill would not allow qualified immunity as a defense for claims of wrongful death or injury caused by a police officer if a court determines the officer’s conduct to be “unreasonable.” It also would expand what’s considered malfeasance in office for a police officer.

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The language was a compromise struck by a task force created to recommend policy changes aimed at addressing police misconduct. The group included lawmakers, advocacy groups and law enforcement organization leaders.

While the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association supported the bill, lawmakers said they received notes of opposition from the state Fraternal Order of Police and the association representing police chiefs, even though they had representatives on the task force who didn’t object to the recommendation when it passed.

“What’s the incentive to get together and work if at the end of the day it amounts to nothing?” asked Jordan.

Other task force proposals advancing in the Legislature 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.

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The bill is filed as House Bill 609.

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