In the dark days after Hurricane Katrina, our state gratefully received the help of others. But in one case, other states’ police forces protested after seeing an unconscionable level of racism and abuse of evacuees by a Louisiana police force.
State troopers from New Mexico and Michigan reported Baton Rouge police officers routinely harassed black people, resorted to unnecessary violence and conducted illegal searches in the days after Katrina.
The city leadership of Baton Rouge “backed the blue” — to the point that The Advocate for years fought in court for access to police records about the case.
That cover-up is a prime example of what the Public Records Law is intended to prevent. The law is meant to allow people to know what the public servants they are paying are doing — or not doing.
And the Baton Rouge police records case was one in which the law was applied in full force and by the courts, no thanks to city-parish government and police leadership.
That is why we oppose any weakening of the Public Records Law as it applies to law enforcement, including a new bill that could cripple today’s records law and its accountability of law enforcement employees for their actions.
“Law enforcement agencies may exclude from disclosure any employment-related information that will identify a particular employee,” said House Bill 430 by Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville. “Nonidentifying information of a general nature or aggregated data that does not identify a particular employee may be disclosed.”
This sweeping loophole would encompass “police departments and sheriffs, district attorneys, judges and their respective staffs.”
The good news is that Burns has pulled his bill in House committee, but the Louisiana District Attorneys Association still wants to put together a “compromise” version.
What that would compromise is accountability. There are already reasonable provisions protecting public employees from release of information such as Social Security numbers or medical records.
Why is a new bill necessary?
We think there is no reasonable case for crippling the Public Records Law.
The lessons of the post-Katrina cases of police abuses should not be so quickly forgotten. The Public Records Law is a standard of accountability that should not be lightly tinkered with by legislators.