Cleo Fields testifies on police practices task force

Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, prepares to explain his resolution that would launch a study of police practices statewide to a Louisiana House committee Thursday, June 18, 2020.

The governor is expected this week to sign into law a bill that reduces an individual’s ability to successfully seek recompense for injuries in state courts on the hope auto insurance rates will fall.

What’s most remarkable about this legislation is that Republicans and Democrats could come to agreement given a relentless public relations campaign that reduced complex legal theories to bumper-sticker slogans. Everyday citizens chose sides, either accusing business and insurance communities of a naked power grab at the expense of individuals, or alleging lawyer greed was killing small businesses.

Perhaps that compromise foreshadows some hope as leaders’ wade into the much thornier issue of sorting out the vestiges of Louisiana’s history of racism.

Members are being named to a 25-member task force to look into police procedures. The study commission must meet before Aug. 15.

But to get that task force approved required supporters to strip all but one parenthetical reference to “people of color” from the language of Senate Concurrent Resolution 7.

As with the two-year debate over the auto insurance measure, the conversation over race features both sides, this time White and Black, talking past each other.

“I am concerned with the tone,” Rep. Michael Johnson, R-Alexandria, said of one of the resolutions seeking to look at law enforcement training, which he favored in general but not when the language connected Black men as disproportionate victims of police violence, which statistics show they are.

“That would imply this is a study in race and not a study in policing. I have a problem with that,” Johnson added.

Republican Rep. Dodie Horton, of Haughton, was blunter: “I’ve never seen a more racist document.”

“You see the word race and racism all throughout the resolution because I think it is something we as a nation have not adequately unpacked,” Democratic New Orleans Rep. Royce Duplessis said about another instrument, this one looking at the impact of racism on public schools.

He noted recent church burnings in Acadiana show racism still exists though not as blatantly as when Jim Crow laws limited employment opportunities and excluded most African Americans from voting.

“There is no other race in this country where laws were designed specifically, intentionally, for their oppression,” Duplessis added.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer galvanized international attention to the continuing residuals from America’s history of the White supremacy that rationalized slavery.

Since the May 25 death of Floyd, the National Conference of State Legislatures charted 259 bills and resolutions filed in 26 states that deal with police training, standards, certification and use of force.

The legislation met with varied outcomes. All six bills before the Georgia General Assembly failed. But all five instruments before the Illinois General Assembly have breezed through the process and are awaiting final votes.

Two of the five measures considered by Louisiana lawmakers — including Senate Resolution 75 commending organizers for holding a peaceful protest — were passed.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 7, which creates the task force to study policing in Louisiana, neutralized racial language to sidestep debate and get on with the work, said Rep. Ted James, the Baton Rouge Democrat who handled the instrument in the House for sponsor state Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge.

“We’re open to talks but I don’t see that we have to limit it to one race. Let’s make sure it includes all minorities,” said House GOP Majority Leader Blake Miguez, of Erath.

Louisiana hasn’t always been welcoming to minorities.

Cajuns, for instance, arriving from Canada in the 1750s during the “Grand Dérangement” were sent west to the unsettled prairies and swamps in what is now Acadiana.

On April 13, 1873, about 150 Black men were murdered in Colfax — 50 after having surrendered — in a dispute over who won a gubernatorial contest.

On March 14, 1891, a mob killed 11 Italian Americans — the largest single mass lynching in U.S. history — after a New Orleans jury found some of them not guilty of murdering a police chief.

On Sept. 1, 1963 an all-white police force, including state troopers, rode their horses into a Plaquemine City church and beat Black congregants attending a voter rights rally.

“Louisiana certainly has its own history to reconcile with and how that conversation looks is still to be determined. But it’s going to happen. … Even if it seems like we’re talking past each other,” said Rep. Tanner Magee, the Houma Republican who is the second highest-ranking leader in the Louisiana House.

Some of the softening of the language is prudent, Magee said. “That’s more productive than putting people off into their corners right out of the gate.”

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