Legislation to reform police ‘bill of rights’ passes Louisiana House

Bill would change how internal investigations are handled

By: - May 10, 2021 8:27 pm
Republicans block qualified immunity reform

People gather to protest against the shooting of Alton Sterling on July 10, 2016 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Alton Sterling was shot by a police officer in front of the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge on July 5th, leading the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)

A bill to reform Louisiana’s police officer “bill of rights” narrowly cleared the first half of its legislative journey with House lawmakers approving the measure on Monday. The legislation proposes changes to the way internal affairs investigations are conducted within municipal police departments.

House Bill 430, sponsored by Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, was approved in a 56-45 vote and sent to the Senate for consideration. Despite significant opposition, the bill did not draw much debate during its consideration on the House floor.

James answered a few questions from other lawmakers and emphasized that the legislation has the full support of the Louisiana Association of Chiefs of Police. The bill is comprised of reforms that were studied and recommended by the Police Training Screening and De-escalation Task Force, a 25-member panel that the legislature established in response to national outcry at the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. 

Among other things, the bill proposes to change the length of time given to an officer under internal investigation to obtain an attorney, reducing it from 30 to 14 days, before the officer has to answer any questions. It would also extend the length of time allowed to complete internal investigations from 60 to 75 days.

Further, the legislation would require all sustained complaints — that is those made against an officer that are supported by evidence — to remain in the officer’s personnel file for at least 10 years. When Thibodeaux Rep. Bryan Fontenot asked about the intent of this specific proposal on Monday, James said the public has a right to know if a particular officer has a history of complaints or misconduct.

In September the task force heard testimony from officials with the Fraternal Order of Police, the Louisiana State Police Commission, Baton Rouge Crime Stoppers and the Louisiana Association of Chiefs of Police, among others. Administrators with knowledge of law enforcement internal affairs said that the 60-day time deadline to complete internal investigations that’s now imposed by the so-called officer bill of rights doesn’t leave them enough time to complete an internal investigation. 

“The chiefs said they needed more time,” James said Monday.

Currently, Louisiana law not only limits a police department to a 60-day deadline to conduct and complete an internal investigation, but it also gives an officer 30 days to find an attorney before answering any questions. Under these current time constraints, James said Monday, an officer can purposefully wait until day 29 to hire a lawyer, thereby eating up half the time a department has to investigate the matter.

The legislation would apply only to municipal police officers because parish deputies are not governed under the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service rules and the officer bill of rights, nor are they protected by unions, James said. State police troopers are governed under the State Police Commission.  

“I agree that there should probably be some uniformity, but that’s a conversation for another year,” he said on the floor.

James’ bill is one of several making its way through the legislature this session. The Senate passed a reform bill that would prohibit chokeholds, no-knock warrants and require officers to train how to intervene when witnessing misconduct.  

The most significant reform measure is contained in House Bill 609, which would dismantle qualified immunity — a doctrine that essentially blocks lawsuits against officers who wrongfully kill or injure citizens. It is scheduled for debate on the floor of the House Tuesday.

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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.

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