Louisiana lawmakers today dropped state legislation that would have both restricted the qualified immunity defense and expanded the definition of “malfeasance” for law enforcement and other state officers.
Specifically, HB 609, authored by Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Brusly, sought to limit the ability of “peace officers” — defined as police, sheriffs, deputy sheriffs, marshals, correctional officers, constables, wildlife enforcement agents, state park wardens, probation and parole officers, and others — to use qualified immunity as a viable defense from civil lawsuits claiming they have used excessive force and violated other individual rights.
Some state lawmakers like Jordan and dozens of others, mostly Democrats, have made it a priority to expand protection from police brutality a year after the George Floyd protests galvanized the nation and sparked discussions on how to dismantle systemic racism, particularly in law enforcement.
As is the case in other parts of the country, in Louisiana police brutality disproportionately impacts Black people, and several high-profile cases of it have made national headlines. The death of Ronald Greene at the hands of Louisiana State troopers in 2019 has sparked outrage in recent weeks after footage was released of Greene being tormented by police before they killed him.
Under “qualified immunity,” upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, law enforcement accused of violating constitutional rights can be protected from lawsuits in civil courts if the officer didn’t have previous knowledge their behavior was unconstitutional.
It does not affect criminal liability, but Reuters has pointed out it is a “highly effective shield in thousands of lawsuits seeking to hold cops accountable for using excessive force.”
The bill received House approval earlier this session.
State Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, who supported the bill, told Gambit Tuesday evening the failure for it to pass is “deeply disappointing” and said “true accountability in police brutality cases is extremely rare. Without this measure of accountability, and we cannot build public trust.”
He also called it a “common-sense” measure, pointing out it was a bipartisan measure recommended by a task force.
“No one, especially a state actor, should be able to violate someone’s constitutional rights with immunity,” he said.
Republican Sens. Cameron Henry of Metairie, Ronnie Johns of Lake Charles, Mike Reese of Leesville and Kirk Talbot of River Ridge struck the bill down, according to the Associated Press.
Several police officers also spoke Tuesday against it, according to The Advocate. Michael Carter, Shreveport Police Association president, said, “I’m simply not going to work without qualified immunity. I don’t make enough money to pay malpractice insurance. Doctors do.”
The Louisiana Black Caucus, which supported the legislation and is led by Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, issued a statement saying the group is “disappointed, but rest assured that we will keep fighting and seeking out deeds over words.”
Duplessis added, “We will continue to push for this change and combat the false narrative that supporting police reform makes you anti-police. If you’re pro-police, you should want this. Unfortunately, good changes take time and persistence.”
This story has been updated.