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Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge

A debate over a police reform bill on the Louisiana House floor spurred emotional testimony from several Black lawmakers about police brutality Tuesday night, as the Republican-led House balked at the legislation and tacked on an amendment dubbed a poison pill by supporters.

Rep. Edmond Jordan, a Baton Rouge Democrat, sponsored House Bill 609 as a compromise effort to limit the use of qualified immunity by police officers, which has emerged in recent years as a key police reform effort by advocates. Police groups, including the powerful Louisiana Sheriffs Association, helped tank a similar bill by Jordan last year, but came on board with his bill this year after months of work by a task force.

The bill passed on a 53 to 42 vote – with zero to spare and support from House Speaker Clay Schexnayder – though only after an amendment that supporters called a poison pill was added. 

Several Republican lawmakers chafed at the effort to limit the use of qualified immunity, which shields officers from civil liability. Rep. Bryan Fontenot, R-Thibodeaux, a former law enforcement officer, successfully tacked on an amendment that would require plaintiffs to pay all costs and attorneys fees to the police officer if they lost.

Tensions have been simmering between Black lawmakers and Republicans of late, especially after a contentious hearing where the House Education Chairman Ray Garofalo, R-Chalmette, brought up the “good” of slavery. While Garofalo quickly walked his comment back, the Black caucus was outraged at Garofalo’s bill and the hearing, and is withholding support for tax reform efforts in the meantime.

After Fontenot’s amendment was added to the bill, Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat who chairs the Black caucus, delivered an impassioned speech about the need for “uncomfortable conversations.” He brought up instances of police brutality by Louisiana state troopers and suggested some Republicans opposed the legislation because they were casting the vote as being pro- or anti-police.

“Some of you think the issue of dead Black and Brown bodies at the hands of police officers is frivolous. Period,” James said.

Jordan called the opposition to his bill, even after the Sheriffs Association and other law enforcement groups came on board, is “exhausting” and “frustrating.”

“We live in two different Americas. We live in two different Louisianas. And some of the issues we have to face I pray to God you never have to face,” an emotional Jordan said.

Jordan’s bill is the product of a task force on police reform that included members from law enforcement, Black lawmakers and others. The legislation would prohibit police officers from invoking qualified immunity in wrongful death or other injury lawsuits when the courts deem the force unreasonable.

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While the Sheriffs Association supported Jordan’s bill, several Republican lawmakers said police officers were emailing them saying they were opposed to the legislation.

Rep. Blake Miguez, the chair of the House Republican delegation, asked Jordan if he supports police or defunding the police, and said he’s been getting emails from rank-and-file police officers opposing the bill. He said they wondered “what kind of message does this send to the services we provide.”

Mike Ranatza, head of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, sent lawmakers a note saying the group supports the bill and saying “there has been a lot of misinformation about this bill that is simply false.”

“The bill only reinforces current case law, which says anyone, even a police officer, can be sued for unreasonable acts under traditional tort law,” the note said.

HB609 BY JORDAN, FINAL PASSAGE,

Voting to limit law enforcement qualified immunity for unreasonable force (53): Speaker Schexnayder, Reps Adams, Bagley, Bourriaque, Brass, Brown, Bryant, Carpenter, R. Carter, W. Carter, Coussan, Cox, DuBuisson, Duplessis, Freeman, Freiberg, Gaines, Geymann, Glover, Green, Hughes, Huval, Ivey, James, Jefferson, Jenkins, M. Johnson, T. Johnson, Jones, Jordan, LaCombe, Landry, Larvadain, Lyons, Marcelle, Marino, McCormick, McKnight, McMahen, D. Miller, G. Miller, Nelson, Newell, C. Owen, Phelps, Pierre, Selders, Tarver, Thompson, Turner, White, Willard and Wright.

Voting against HB609 (42): Reps Amedee, Bacala, Butler, Carrier, Crews, Davis, Deshotel, DeVillier, Echols, Edmonds, Edmonston, Emerson, Farnum, Firment, Fontenot, Frieman, Gadberry, Garofalo, Goudeau, Harris, Hilferty, Hodges, Hollis, Horton, Illg, Kerner, Mack, McFarland, Miguez, Mincey, Muscarello, Orgeron, Owen, R., Riser, Romero, Schamerhorn, Schlegel, Seabaugh, Stagni, Thomas, Villio and Wheat.

Not Voting (10): Reps. Beaullieu, Bishop, G. Carter, Cormier, Magee, Moore, Pressly, St. Blanc, Stefanski, and Zeringue.

AMENDMENT # 2649 BY FONTENOT

Voting for Fontenot amendment (52): Reps Amedee, Bacala, Bagley, Bourriaque, Butler, Carrier, Crews, Davis, Deshotel, DeVillier, DuBuisson, Echols, Edmonds, Edmonston, Emerson, Farnum, Firment, Fontenot, Frieman, Gadberry, Garofalo, Geymann, Goudeau, Harris, Hodges, Hollis, Horton, Illg, M. Johnson, Kerner, Mack, McCormick, McKnight, McMahen, Miguez, Mincey, Muscarello, Orgeron, C. Owen, R. Owen, Pressly, Riser, Romero, Schamerhorn, Schlegel, Seabaugh, St. Blanc, Tarver, Thomas, Thompson, Turner and Wheat.

Voting against to amendment (41): Reps Adams, Brass, Brown, Bryant, Carpenter, R. Carter, W. Carter, Coussan, Cox, Duplessis, Freeman, Gaines, Glover, Green, Hilferty, Hughes, Ivey, James, Jefferson, Jenkins, T. Johnson, Jones, Jordan, LaCombe, Landry, Larvadain, Lyons, Marcelle, Marino, D. Miller, G. Mille, Nelson, Newell, Phelps, Pierre, Selders, Stagni, Villio, White, Willard and Wright.

Not Voting (12): Speaker Schexnayder, Reps Beaullieu, Bishop, Carter, G., Cormier, Freiberg, Huval, Magee, McFarland, Moore, Stefanski and Zeringue.

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