Demonstrators holds hands as they block the intersection of Camellia Boulevard and Kaliste Saloom Road Sunday, August 23, 2020, during the second night of protests following the shooting death of Trayford Pellerin by Lafayette Police officers Aug. 21 at a Shell gas station on the Evangeline Thruway in Lafayette, La.

State lawmakers Tuesday began studying police practices, including claims that Black citizens represent an inordinate number of those killed by law enforcement both in Louisiana generally and Baton Rouge.

Since 2013 a total of 160 people were killed by police, said Chris Kaiser, advocacy director for the ACLU of Louisiana. Kaiser said Black citizens represent 53% of those killed even though they comprise 32% of the state's population.

He said Black residents in East Baton Rouge Parish account for 47% of the population but 84% of those killed by law enforcement over the same period. 

"There are some trends that are not in dispute," Kaiser said. "There are very real trends that create stark disparities in Louisiana."

The issue of how police operate is under scrutiny by a state task force, which was prompted by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier this year.

Floyd was a Black man who died after a White police officer held him on the ground with his knee on his neck for nearly eight minutes, setting off months of protests.

Kaiser made his comments to one of two subcommittees of legislators and others from the task force that launched hearings Tuesday.

The full panel will make recommendations to the Legislature by Feb. 1, and those changes are expected to form the basis of legislation for debate during the 2021 regular session of the Legislature.

Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul, a member of the task force, said even amid the challenges of police work in 2020 there are signs of progress.

Paul said 10 years ago Baton Rouge police made about 55,000 arrests, including summons issued. In the past two years that number has dropped to about 22,000, and crime was down compared to a decade earlier.

Paul noted that there is renewed interest in outside reviews of police operations, including community reviews.

"My position is this: If you do the right thing who cares who is watching?" he said.

Paul also said the Baton Rouge Police Department last year had its lowest turnover rate in the past five or six years.

He said the current training academy is 65% minority, with Black police candidates accounting for 48% and Hispanic candidates 17%.

"When we have good officers from the community, there is value in that," Paul said. "And I would debate that with anyone."

Later in the day Paul told a second subcommittee of the task force that gains have been made since Alton Sterling was killed four years ago by a police officer, setting off protests.

"I think we, Baton Rouge, have made a lot of progress since 2016," he said.  "Some of those who were very critical of the Baton Rouge Police Department are now partners."

However, the police chief said younger citizens are pressing for substantive improvements in police operations.

"It is not a moment, it is a movement," Paul said.

"For me, who has seen law enforcement change over 28 years, I have never seen anything like I am witnessing now."

"It is important for us to listen to this younger generation," he said.

State Police Lt. Robert Burns said about 23% of applicants to his agency are minorities.

Burns said State Police rely on an early intervention system to identify troubled officers by offering anger management services, counseling and mental health assistance.

"The colonel personally reviews each early intervention system case," he said, a reference to State Police Superintendent Kevin Reeves.

Alanoh Odoms, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said a recent poll showed 71% of respondents want fewer protections for police officers. For instance, critics contend law enforcement are shielded from being sued over their official actions.

"We can't go on just as we are," Odoms said. "The status quo is not working."

The task force includes representatives of law enforcement, criminal justice experts, the NAACP and a wide range of other groups.

In a statement Tuesday, two groups said the task force should also focus on Louisiana's "Stand Your Ground" law that allows citizens to use deadly force in certain cases.

The law was criticized by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Students Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.

The groups said the law allows "deadly vigilantism and violence, particularly against Black people."

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