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Louisiana lawmakers have been at the forefront recently when it comes to seeking accountability from police. A special House investigative committee continues to peel back shrouds of an apparent coverup in the death of Ronald Greene when he was in State Police custody, and a Senate oversight panel is moving toward fashioning policy changes to reform the agency.
This is why it’s so disappointing that state legislators demurred last Thursday when provided the opportunity to raise standards for law enforcement statewide. House Bill 922 would have required all police departments and sheriff’s offices in Louisiana to gather and report data on a variety of incidents, including motorist stops, uses of force and no-knock warrants.
Its author, Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, acknowledged her proposal reached far and wide. She was willing to work with law enforcement to pare back some of its language, including a hefty $5,000 fine for each instance of failure to report. But her offer was rejected just as her bill was in a 3-8 vote.
Marcelle and proponents of the bill were careful not to portray it as a punitive measure against “bad apples,” but one that could inform and improve police strategy while building trust with the community.
“People have data about who went to a movie last weekend, how many books were sold, or how many cases of the flu walked into an emergency room,” said Chandra Foster with the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of the groups supporting Marcelle’s bill. “And I cannot tell you how many people were shot by the police in the United States last month or last year. That’s unfortunate and a very bad place to be.”
Ironically, one of the opponents of the bill, Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, provided a precise count Monday on the House floor of the numbers of law enforcement officers assaulted, injured and killed in the line of duty. The occasion was a House resolution to mark Louisiana Police Week.
One complaint against Marcelle’s bill was the cost of implementing it, which the legislative fiscal office pegged at roughly $7 million. Marcelle disputed the accuracy of that amount but said, whatever the price, it would be small compared with the potential liability police face when they put someone’s civil rights in jeopardy. The $27 million settlement from the city of Minneapolis with the family of George Floyd was mentioned as an example.
Yet some lawmakers held that voters already provide accountability for police.
“We elect sheriffs,” said Rep. Nick Muscarello, R-Hammond. “We have people that are hired to run law enforcement agencies. If they do a poor job, they should be fired or they won’t be re-elected.”
Those in opposition also focused on the additional clerical workload on police, which Johnson described as “burdensome.”
“They’d have to hire people to do this type of thing, across the board,” he said.
Marcelle was also amenable to that suggestion, explaining that lawmakers should appropriate additional dollars as needed. The use of public resources to ensure police effectiveness and answerability is easy to justify, she argued.
Michael Renatza, executive director of Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association, implied public safety could be placed at risk if police officers were asked to collect and report more detailed data.
“It takes a longer amount of time for the deputy sheriff, the trooper or the officer to ascertain this information,” he said. “So it’s more down time on the side of the street or interstate where the individual law enforcement officer has to do this. That takes away from other functions.”
Proponents of data collection challenged Ranatza when he chafed at non-existent suggestions police did anything but respond to calls as quickly as possible.
“What data do you have to support that statement?” asked Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge. “What if the data somehow shows you respond to some communities faster than others? I don’t think that’s the case, but do we really know without data that supports it?”
Although it became clear Marcelle’s bill faced long odds, supporters continued to seek accountability for Ranatza as testimony during the hearing indicated the sheriffs’ association has been reluctant to collaborate on reform efforts.
Capt. Robert Burns of Louisiana State Police addressed the committee to share information about the application on Marcelle’s bill without taking a stance on it. He referenced his participation in meetings of a task force lawmakers had created to help shape law enforcement legislation. While Burns claimed State Police logged perfect attendance at all 14 meetings, it was revealed the sheriffs’ association took part in only three.
Our current knee-jerk reactionary climate makes it easy to forget that people in Louisiana, by and large, support the men and women of law enforcement. They would also acknowledge that the vast majority in the profession go about their work in an honorable and fair fashion.
But their reputations are sullied when the thin blue line is turned into an impenetrable wall where questions of motives or practices are discouraged. As a result, the actions of an extreme minority of rogue cops become the public-facing image of the department.
Until lawmakers can separate politics from public safety, perception will remain reality.
Greg LaRose is editor of Louisiana Illuminator. Follow him on Twitter @GregLaRose
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