A bill that would limit the legal immunity for Louisiana police officers who use excessive force failed to pass through a Senate judiciary committee Tuesday.
Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, authored HB 609, which would give civil judges a list of factors to determine whether a law officer had used force reasonably.
The bill passed the House 53-42, but was thwarted in the Senate Judiciary B Committee, 4-2. It had the support of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association and was part of a broader package of changes in policing that had been recommended by a bipartisan task force.
Several police officers spoke Tuesday against the measure. “I’m simply not going to work without qualified immunity,” said Michael Carter, the Shreveport Police Officers Association president. “I don’t make enough money to pay malpractice insurance. Doctors do.”
Louisiana Survivors for Reform tweeted, “This loss is incredibly upsetting for all survivors of police violence and the families who have had loved ones murdered by police.”
Qualified immunity was created to shield government officials from being held personally liable for violating the Constitution. The law dates back to the late 1960s and was meant to protect officials from lawsuits related to their job duties.
Jordan, an attorney, detailed how difficult it is to charge a police officer for unreasonable conduct. He told the committee that once a suit is filed against a police officer, the defense will automatically ask for qualified immunity. Then a judge will have to decide if the conduct is unreasonable or unconstitutional. For judges to disqualify the exemption, they have to find a case with matching facts.
To show how improbable this is, Jordan talked about a pregnant woman in Seattle who was tased three times and was forced to lie on her stomach during a traffic stop. The court declared the officers’ actions to be unconstitutional, but because there was never a case that showed that tasing a pregnant woman was a violation, the officers were exonerated.
“Qualified immunity has almost become absolute immunity,” said Jordan. In his closing argument, Jordan spoke of the bodycam footage of Ronald Greene that the Associated Press recently released. Green, 49, was beaten by Louisiana State Police officers and killed during a 2019 arrest outside of Monroe.
“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 state troopers responsible for Greene’s death initially told his family he died after crashing his vehicle into a tree as he fled from being pulled over.
The Senate committee also advanced a bill that would allow citizens over 21 years of age to carry a concealed handgun without a permit or training.
The bill written by Rep. Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodaux, aims to make Louisiana the fourteenth state to have constitutional carry laws. Similar bills are also moving through the legislative process and have faced pressure from opponents and the Louisiana Chiefs Association of Police to mandate training for gun users.
The full Senate approved a similar bill Tuesday and sent it to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards. He is expected to veto it.
By Ryan Nelsen, LSU Manship School News Service