Debate over policing leads to tension in Louisiana House
BATON ROUGE, La. (LSU Manship School News Service) - A racially charged debate on the House floor about a resolution to establish a task force to make recommendations about policing ended with remarks from Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, about his own experiences with law enforcement.
The House approved the resolution 99-0, but only after Republicans had pushed privately before the debate to remove references to George Floyd, a black man who died when a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for more than 8 minutes.
Rep. Blake Miguez, R-New Iberia, proposed the amendment to remove any mention of Floyd’s death. House members passed it with 67 yeas and 32 nays.
“The first piece of legislation only mentioned George Floyd,” James, who is African American, said, referring to the recent event that inspired the public outcry to which the resolution was responding. “Blake, we could have filled five pages with names.”
In an effort to ensure approval for the study that could lead to police reform, however, James reluctantly agreed to the amendment.
The resolution, written by Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, had been approved by the Senate with the reference to Floyd’s death. Since the House amended it to remove that reference, the resolution will be returned to the Senate for consideration. Under the resolution, the task force would be called the Police Training, Screening, and De-escalation Task Force. It will study law enforcement training and practices and make recommendations to the Legislature.
James had agreed before the debate to delete the references to Floyd, but Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, was not privy to the conversation. When the resolution came up for debate on the floor, Bacala, who had worked in law enforcement, 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.”
James responded that he had agreed to pass the amendment that “watered down the bill” in order to avoid that kind of public conversation but that he would not “run from it.”
“We all know that police officers get murdered,” he said. “But do you know what happens to the people that murder police officers? If they survive, they get arrested.”
James noted that Bacala passed legislation earlier in the session making it illegal to throw water on police officers.
“You know what happens to police officers that kill people that look like me? Blake? Tony? They get a taxpayer-funded vacation. In Baton Rouge, Blane Salamoni got a taxpayer-funded vacation for over a year.”
James was referring to a police officer involved in the killing of Alton Sterling, a black man in Baton Rouge. He ended by speaking about his own experiences with law enforcement officers as a young black man.
“Tony, I was pepper-sprayed in handcuffs by a police officer. A white one,” James said.
He also described a more recent instance in which he was questioned by law enforcement officers for standing in a group with four other black men outside of his barbershop on Nicholson Avenue in Baton Rouge. The questioning only ended when he handed the officer a card that identified James as a state legislator. James said that the police officer said he thought that James was “one of them.”
“Despite the title, as soon as I walk out of here, to many people I am just one of them,” James said.
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