Ted James and Dodie Horton

Louisiana State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, left, and Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, right.

A proposal to study police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s death touched off an emotional and at times divisive debate over race and policing at the State Capitol Wednesday, with several black lawmakers making impassioned pleas for changes to law enforcement practices and some white lawmakers chafing at the measure’s reference of Floyd and race.

Baton Rouge Democratic Rep. Ted James, who is African American, put forth the resolution to create a study group to review law enforcement and issue a report to the state House ahead of the 2021 Regular Session, the next time lawmakers are currently scheduled to be able to take up such changes.

But several Republican lawmakers took issue with the language at the beginning of the resolution, which doesn’t carry legal weight, that pointed out Floyd died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. The language also said “the deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers in recent years raised a number of questions about the treatment of racial minorities within the criminal justice system.”

Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, said he had problems with the “tone” of the resolution, and added the issue shouldn’t be cast in racial terms.

Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, called the language “offensive” and demanded it be stripped from the bill. “I’ve never seen a more racist document than the one you’ve brought,” said Horton, who is white.

“If you’re offended by the words just look at me and Royce (Duplessis) and think how offended we are by the actions,” James replied, referencing Rep. Royce Duplessis, a Democrat from New Orleans who is also black.

In the end, white lawmakers stripped out the language that references Floyd and the deaths of black men at the hands of white police. James said he was fine with the amendment if it meant the measure passed and the issue was studied, saying that would “honor (Floyd) more than his name being included in the resolution.” The committee passed the resolution unanimously after taking out the language.

The debate – over a resolution that would merely allow a group to study the issue of policing – foreshadows what is likely to be a hot debate over police reform in a Legislature where the two parties are split heavily along racial lines. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who helped pass a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill in his first term, is also closely aligned with the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, which endorsed him in his bid for reelection last year.

Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police touched off a wave of protests across the country, including several in Baton Rouge, New Orleans and other Louisiana cities. According to a database on police shootings created by the Washington Post, which won the paper a Pulitzer Prize in 2017, black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans.

Unarmed black men are about four times more likely to be killed by police than unarmed white men, according to the database.

The study group, if the measure passes, would bring together lawmakers, the Urban League of Louisiana, the NAACP, ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, Voice of the Experienced and three representatives from law enforcement to study policing.

“This is a watershed moment in this country,” Duplessis said. “To ignore the issue of race I think we all would do ourselves a disservice.”

The officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck, as well as the three officers who stood by and watched, have drawn widespread condemnation across the political spectrum. Edwards called their actions “egregious.” Law enforcement leaders have also condemned their actions.

Protests across the nation have renewed debate over reforms to police departments, including calls for defunding or dismantling police agencies, as part of an overhaul that would reimagine how law enforcement should work. That debate has reached the Louisiana Legislature, where several lawmakers have started floating measures that would overhaul police practices.

The current session, which ends June 30, is a special session where only bills relating to 41 specific topics can be introduced. That list, crafted by Republican legislative leaders in late May, includes the state budget, taxes and other issues, including fantasy sports.

Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, said he’s working with Speaker Clay Schexnayder on whether his measure – a bill that takes aim at qualified immunity for police officers – is allowed to be taken up in the current special session. Qualified immunity protects police from liability in civil suits for their actions, and reform advocates have tried to change the doctrine.

The Legislature is expected to return to Baton Rouge in October for a special session about state finances, and some Democrats have expressed hope police reform can be taken up in that session. Edwards said Wednesday he would be open to including that in the call, in conjunction with legislative leaders, if the legislation was ready. If not, the next time such police reform measures could be considered is the regular session that starts in the spring of 2021.

“You’re seeing this across the country in states led by Republicans, led by Democrats ... all talking about police reform measures,” Edwards said. “We’ll see where we are and discuss that with leadership but it’s certainly something I could see happening.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana said Wednesday it would enlist law schools and law firms to unleash a “wave of lawsuits” to challenge racially discriminatory policing. The effort aims to bring up to 1,000 cases challenging “racially-motivated stops and seizures” and other laws.

In the Louisiana state Senate on Wednesday, a committee took up a measure by Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, that is similar to James’ resolution. The proposal would create the Police Training, Screening and De-escalation Task Force, with members from law enforcement, the Legislature, NAACP, Urban League and others, and included similar language about Floyd and disparities in police killings as James’ bill. It passed through the committee without objection.

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com