BATON ROUGE, La. - Before they agreed to a proposal study policing approaches in the aftermath of George Floyd's death, white lawmakers on a Louisiana House committee Wednesday stripped a reference to Floyd and language questioning the criminal justice system's treatment of racial minorities.
Rep. Ted James' effort to create the 19-member study group to review Louisiana's law enforcement systems and policing methods sparked strong reactions in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Several white lawmakers described as offensive the legislation's original language describing “the deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers in recent years” and referencing the death of Floyd in Minneapolis.
“I've never seen a more racist document than the one you brought,” said Rep. Dodie Horton, a Republican from Haughton who said she comes “from a law enforcement family.” Horton added: “I don't choose to look at Minneapolis as the norm, because it's not.”
She said she doesn't have a problem conducting a study to ensure officers have the proper training, but she also talked about law enforcement officers being targeted and “ambushed."
Pineville Republican Rep. Mike Johnson said he did not disagree with the study, but was “concerned with the tone.” He called Floyd's death a “tragedy,” but said he didn't agree with “presupposing” that there are policing problems based on race.
“I've not seen that it’s just a problem between black victims and white police,” Johnson said.
James, an African American Democrat from Baton Rouge, agreed to rewrite the language to win passage that sent the measure to the House floor for debate. He said he prioritized creation of the study group over the reference to Floyd.
“I think the work will honour him more than his name being included,” James said.
Floyd died after a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes even after the handcuffed black man stopped moving and pleaded for air. His death has prompted states and municipalities around the United States to reconsider policing methods and the nation’s broader approach to public safety.
James' rewritten legislation creating the study group says the “unreasonable use of force” by law enforcement in recent years has “raised a number of questions about the disparate treatment” of different segments of society within the criminal justice system, without specifically referencing minority groups.
Black members of the committee said a policing study cannot ignore the racial disparities in police use of force or the country's long history of racism.
“I have been offended since I was 5 years old and I was told that I was dirty because my skin was brown,” said Rep. Candace Newell, a New Orleans Democrat.
She described the conversation about policing as “long overdue.”
Rep. Royce Duplessis said a disproportionate majority of police brutality victims are black men.
“That is a fact we cannot run from," the New Orleans Democrat said. He added: “We cannot deal with race-based issues through race-neutral policies.”
After the study legislation won approval from the committee without objection, James called the discussion one of his proudest moments as a lawmaker.
“These are the kind of conversations that we have to have,” he said.
Later Wednesday, a Senate committee advanced separate task force legislation by Sen. Cleo Fields, a black Democrat from Baton Rouge, with none of the controversy of the House hearing.
Fields' proposal includes a reference to Floyd's death in Minnesota and language about the “disparate treatment of people of colour by law enforcement agencies.” It would create a task force to make recommendations about police training, screening, racial bias recognition and deescalation tactics. The legislation moves to the full Senate for debate.
Sen. Gary Smith, a white Democrat from Norco, called the measure “one of the most important pieces of legislation we’re going to look at” this session.
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