A controversial law that shields police officers from lawsuits alleging brutality would be revamped under a plan endorsed Thursday by a state panel studying law enforcement practices statewide.

The defense, called qualified immunity, sparked controversy in the Legislature last year after the death of a Black man at the hands of a White officer in Minneapolis.

The latest proposed change would strip officers of the ability to use the defense in cases of a death or injury if a court also concluded that the officer acted unreasonably. It was sponsored by state Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, who tried and failed to trim the defense in the Legislature last year.  

Jordan said after the meeting he is optimistic the new rules can win legislative approval.

"We have worked with the stakeholders, including the sheriffs' association and the district attorneys' association," he said. "I think with all those stakeholders coming to the table, we have a real good chance of passing it this time."

The policy modification is among a host of changes for law enforcement endorsed by a 25-member task force for debate during the 2021 legislative session, which begins April 12.

"Hopefully we can get something meaningful passed in the Legislature," state Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge and leader of the task force told the group after the final vote.

The recommendations are due to the Legislature by Feb. 1.

Rep. Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville, another member of the panel and a law enforcement veteran, touted the new rules for immunity as a compromise.

Bacala said it means cases where offices behaved poorly would be held accountable while those who performed up to standards would still enjoy the legal protection in civil lawsuits.

"It brings us to a position where most of us could agree," he said of the change backed by the committee.

Another change endorsed by the task force would put new curbs on "no-knock warrants," which have sparked controversy in the Baton Rouge area and nationally. It would ban their use except in cases where a judge is convinced the warrant is needed to protect a life.

Law enforcement officials who execute the warrant would have to be in uniform and articulate to suspects the reason for the hunt.

Earlier the same panel rejected a push to curb the rights of police officers under investigation.

The proposal, by state Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, would prohibit officers who are the targets of a probe and their attorneys from gaining access to the footage of body or dashboard cameras before his or her first meeting with investigators.

James, a member of the task force, said the modification was needed to prevent  officers from "concocting" stories based on their review of footage.

"There is the opportunity for foul play," James said, adding that his concerns are focused only on the small number of officers who critics call bad apples.

"Allowing an officer who is under investigation to review a body camera ... is inconsistent with what we have body cameras for," he said. "It leaves room for someone to manufacture a statement, it promotes lying ... It undermines the legitimacy of the investigation."

Col. Lamar Davis, superintendent of the Louisiana State Police and a member of the task force, and others said James' proposal would infringe on the rights of those who are the target of probes, and hinder any truth-finding hunt.

Davis said prohibiting officers from seeing what the camera recorded means they would be denied access to a public record.

The proposal failed 6-18.

The 25-member study group includes state lawmakers and officials of the Louisiana Fraternal Order of Police, the attorney general's office, law professors, defense lawyers and police chiefs.

The votes Thursday followed months of hearings by four subcommittees that tackled different areas.

The study group was authorized by the Legislature last year after George Floyd, a Black man, died in Minneapolis after a White police officer held his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly eight minutes. The episode sparked protests in Louisiana and internationally.

The panel endorsed a proposal to prohibit the use of chokeholds on suspects and declared that doing so would be a civil rights violation.

It also adopted a change that would require employees of law enforcement agencies to undergo anti-bias training for those agencies to be eligible to land state grants.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.