BATON ROUGE, La. (WVLA/WGMB) — Immunity for officers sued for excessive force remains a Louisiana doctrine, after a state House civil law panel killed a push to end it Wednesday.
The committee voted 9-7 against a bill from state Rep. Edmond Jordan. The Baton Rouge Democrat’s legislation would have nullified the “qualified immunity” defense that shields officers from wrongful death or injury cases in civil court.
“We say law enforcement should be held to a higher standard except when it comes to qualified immunity,” Jordan told the panel. “We actually hold them to a lower standard than we hold the general public.”
Debate over the doctrine has grown nationally since George Floyd, a black man, died in Minneapolis police custody in May. Floyd’s death has seeded widespread conversations over police power.
“Cases such as the ones I’ve cited get cut off at the knees before they have the opportunity to get into formal discovery.”
“Nobody is trying to demonize all police officers,” said state Rep. Sam Jenkins (D-Shreveport). “What this is about is the officers who don’t do a good job. There’s a dark side of this we can’t escape.”
But opponents argued repealing the doctrine would leave law enforcement officers hesitant to do their jobs.
“They have to be able to enforce the laws,” state Rep. Valarie Hodges (R-Denham Springs) said. “How are they going to do that if every time they encounter a crime, they don’t know what to do?”
“We’re here to make sure law enforcement continue to believe they can to their job,” St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said, on behalf of the Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association.
The bill’s critics added that officers are not immune from criminal excessive force cases.
“Qualified immunity doesn’t, in any way, prevent a bad actor from being charged, prosecuted, tried, convicted, sentenced, or punished,” state Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Pineville) said.
Though supporters argue that officers rarely get criminal charges, and that loosening the civil doctrine would grant some closure to victims of police brutality — and their relatives.
“If you speak to a family member, money is the last thing they’re looking for,” Baton Rouge attorney Ron Haley told state House members.
The committee room filled up in the moments before the panel’s vote. Black legislators stood at the sidelines, as family members of black Louisianians shot by police stood in the back.
The nine lawmakers who voted against the bill are all Republicans. Two Republicans — state Reps. Thomas Pressley and Richard Nelson — joined the five Democrats in support.
Lawmakers are unlikely to consider any similar legislation before Spring 2021, when they hold their next regular session.