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Lawmakers stall bill striking at Louisiana officer immunity

Posted at 6:19 PM, Jun 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-17 19:19:22-04

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A Louisiana lawmaker’s effort to eliminate police officers’ wide immunity from lawsuits and allow people injured by law enforcement to sue for damages in civil court was shelved Wednesday by Republicans on a state House committee.

The House civil law committee voted 9-7 against the measure from Rep. Edmond Jordan, a Baton Rouge Democrat. More than a dozen black lawmakers stood together in the hearing to support Jordan’s bill. After the vote, some left the room in tears.

Jordan sought to strip the wide-ranging immunity, called qualified immunity, available to law enforcement officers as a defense against damage claims for wrongful death or injury. Backers of Jordan’s proposal said the immunity is so sweeping it’s nearly impossible to hold officers accountable for excessive force when prosecutors refuse to bring criminal charges.

“It denies the opportunity for justice to victims whose rights have been violated, and it exacerbates the crisis of confidence in government,” Jordan said.

The vote fell largely along party lines, with Republicans objecting to the bill and Democrats in support. Two GOP lawmakers — Reps. Richard Nelson of Mandeville and Thomas Pressly of Shreveport — joined Democrats in backing the measure.

Opponents said legal avenues exist to prosecute police for inappropriate behavior and excessive force. The Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association said the measure would open all law enforcement officers to frivolous lawsuits, make it harder to combat crime and discourage people from wanting to wear a uniform. Several law enforcement agencies objected to the bill.

“I’m concerned that law enforcement officers would be hesitant to do their duty” for fear of lawsuits, said St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne.

Jordan introduced the bill after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which has sparked broad discussions of policing methods, the nation’s approach to public safety and the protections extended to law enforcement.

Floyd, an African American man, died after a white police officer pressed his knee into the handcuffed man’s neck for several minutes even as he pleaded for air.

Several supporters of Jordan’s proposal described accusations of police misconduct in Louisiana and around the country, with no punishment for the officers.

“Qualified immunity is what allows bad actors to escape consequences ... and, frankly, I think it dishonors those officers who undertake their duties with professionalism and care,” said Chris Kaiser, the advocacy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana.

Pineville Republican Rep. Mike Johnson said that while the wide-ranging immunity can keep police from facing large monetary judgments for excessive force, he said current law “doesn’t in any way prevent a bad actor” from being punished in criminal court.

Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Denham Springs Republican, pointed to the murder charge against Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck. She said that shows law enforcement can be prosecuted. But she also spoke of her nephew, a state trooper who died in a police chase.

“There are some law enforcement officers who are very bad and need to be dismissed. They need to be put in jail,” Hodges said. But she added: “We don’t want to vilify everyone.”

Supporters of the bill said excessive force cases are rarely prosecuted. They argued seeking redress in civil courts with large damage awards could offer a way to push officers who use excessive force out of work, creating a financial disincentive to keep them employed.

Since a 1982 court ruling, “it has been practically impossible to sue a police officer even when the court admits they violated the constitution,” U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat, said in a letter to the committee that Jordan read aloud.

Shannon Dirmann, with the sheriffs’ association, said police reform is needed but the legislation was the wrong approach.

“We’re ready to come to the table to talk about meaningful police accountability,” she said.

Associations for district attorneys, state troopers and chiefs of police opposed the bill — but didn’t speak.

In an emotional closing speech before the committee rejected his bill, Jordan said he fears the way police will interact with his children and the children of other black lawmakers. He pointed to the group of African American legislators assembled and asked the committee: “When you had the chance to do something, what did you do?”
Separately, lawmakers are considering creation of a task force to make recommendations about police training, racial bias recognition and deescalation tactics. A House committee hearing on the Senate-backed legislation is scheduled Thursday.

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