BATON ROUGE, La. — Following the shooting death of Alton Sterling, a black man who was killed during a struggle with two white police officers, activists were adamant that Louisiana police departments needed to do a better job of training their officers.
Those calls were heard.
Nearly a year later — and with minimal resistance — members of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus helped pass four proposals to both strengthen police training requirements and prevent tarnished officers from keeping their job or easily moving to another department.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to sign the bills into law within days.
“(These measures) take important steps in bridging the trust gap between our communities and our law enforcement officers,” said Edwards spokesman Tucker Barry.
Bridging that gap was a driving factor for lawmakers and police alike, said Rep. Katrina Jackson, who sponsored a bill that is going to require law enforcement agencies to report instances of police misconduct to a statewide database. Heads of law enforcement will have to consult the database before hiring an applicant.
“We pretty much went over these bills into exhaustion for a number of months,” the Monroe Democrat said. “I didn’t want a few bad actors in law enforcement to be indicative of everyone. I think that everyone in law enforcement felt the same way.”
Among the measures is a proposal by Baton Rouge Rep. Ted James that both sets a minimum training requirement at 400 hours — some departments already require more — and mandates that both current and future officers be taught more about de-escalation practices, how to recognize their biases and how to handle in-custody deaths.
“I’m extremely excited about the new curriculum,” James said. “Folks in the community that advocated for these things should take credit for them as well.”
James has said the bill was a direct result of Sterling’s death, which occurred less than 2 miles from James’ district. The two officers involved in the shooting are still on paid administrative leave, pending the result of a state investigation.
The Baton Rouge Democrat also sponsored a bill that would force police officers to secure an attorney faster in the event that an officer has killed or seriously injured someone. Officers would have 14 days, rather than 30, to secure legal representation, with some exceptions. Supporters say the change is aimed at shortening delays into shooting investigations.
Still, James wishes his bill could have gone further, pointing out that neither sheriff’s deputies nor state police officers get to wait weeks before they have to find an attorney.
“If there’s an officer-involved shooting why are we giving officers two weeks — or, really 30 days before my bill passed — to get a lawyer?” James said. “I heard from many sheriffs who basically said that in no way, shape or form would they even enact something like that.”
Early in the session, James scrapped a plan that would have prohibited officers who are under investigation from receiving pay after 60 days. Law enforcement officers resisted that proposal, James said, but he hopes to revisit the issue next year.
“This year was about doing some commonsense things,” James said. “Next year I’m going to study the issue again. … I’m not going to back away.”
House Bills 276, 277, 473 and 481: www.legis.la.gov