Louisiana leaders, past and present, bring perspectives to police reform push

Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 8:37 AM CDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Negotiations for a police reform package are well underway after President Joe Biden announced he would like to see a bill passed by the anniversary of George Floyd’s death on May 25. One former Louisiana leader believes lessons from the past can be helpful in the debate.

“We had to change the way we hired. We had to change the way we prepared and trained officers,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans.

Morial recalls his push to reform the New Orleans Police Department in the 1990s after noticing patterns of bad behavior. He saw the need for an overhaul, including more community engagement and accountability from officers in the department.

“That systemic change was coupled with an increase in both the pay and the size of the department, and an increase in the investments we made in things like youth services, and housing and mental health,” said Morial.

He believes his mission was successful. Turning to today’s challenge, Morial says federal leaders have an important role to play in the push for national reforms, but the crucial effort comes at the local level. Rep. Troy Carter (D-LA), the representative for New Orleans, says federal standards on things like body cameras, background checks, training, and legal protections are also important in ensuring progress.

“We’re not saying that a police officer cannot do his or her job, we’re saying they have to do it right,” said Carter.

As lawmakers negotiate on Capitol Hill, one consistently divisive issue is protecting officers from lawsuits if a citizen feels mistreated. Eliminating or adjusting so-called “qualified immunity” is not an option for some Republicans, like Rep. Clay Higgins (R-LA).

“The more they push for these so-called reforms that are very destructive to law enforcement in general, the more your experienced cops are going to leave the job,” said Higgins.

Higgins, a former police officer himself says officers are not immune from prosecution if they break the law. But he argues qualified immunity protects against direct lawsuits that could hurt officers’ finances.

“I’m going to be passionately debating against these very bad ideas that would crush law enforcement,” said Higgins.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act stalled in Congress in 2020. The text of the new bill has still not been introduced.

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