Racially charged debate rings out in House committee
By Kathleen Peppo, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE– A proposal to establish a group to study law enforcement in Louisiana in response to national incidents of police brutality sparked a racially charged debate Wednesday among House committee members.
Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, proposed the resolution, describing it as a call to study “a plethora of issues,” from civil service agreements to the use of force, involving policing across Louisiana.
The main source of debate was the preamble to the resolution, in which James mentioned the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The preamble stated that the deaths of other black men by white police officers raised questions about the treatment of minorities in the criminal justice system.
The House Governmental Affairs Committee ultimately voted to remove the preamble from the resolution.
Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, was one of several Republicans who raised strong concerns about the language.
“I come from a law-enforcement family, and as a representative, I’ve never seen a more racist document than the one you brought,” Horton said.
She said she had “never been more insulted” since she took office than she was by the use of racial language in the resolution.
Referring to police officers, Horton said she “would love for all of us to put on a uniform and go out in their world one or two days and see how they really do need a lot more training than they’re probably able to get.”
Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Pineville, said he also was uncomfortable with the mention of contemporary racial issues in the resolution.
“I don’t want to say ‘offended,’ but I am not happy about that part,” Johnson said. “I don’t have a problem with studying crime policing. I’ve not seen that it’s just a problem between black victims and white police. So, for that reason, I have difficulty supporting the bill.”
If the both houses approve the resolution, the study would need to be completed ahead of the 2021 legislative session.
James responded to the criticism l by making it clear that he was “not married to the language.”
“As long as we study the issues, it doesn’t matter to me,” he said.
“I’m not very concerned with language and the tone, and I certainly didn’t want to offend you with that fact that I’ve been offended,” he said, referring to police brutality.
Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, spoke in support of the mention of race in the resolution, thanking James for his leadership and addressing the discomfort of his fellow legislators.
“The discomfort we feel speaks to the fact that we need to address the issue before us. Period,” Duplessis said. “We can’t deal with race-based issues using race-neutral policies.”
Rep. Candace Newell, D-New Orleans, agreed that the mention of George Floyd and the use of racial language should be removed from the resolution for the sake of moving it forward. But she affirmed that the issue of racism is not one to ignore in order to save feelings.
“I have been offended since I was five years old and I was told that I was dirty because my skin was brown,” said Newell.
Rep. Sam Jenkins, D-Bossier, and Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, also expressed support for the memorialization of George Floyd and the use of the language in the preamble.
“Sometimes events happen that are tipping points in our state and our nation,” Ivey said. “While this did not happen here in Louisiana, it sparked a lot of attention to a serious situation.”
“Obviously, there is a significant racial component to it, and to ignore that completely I don’t think would be fair,” he said. “I don’t want to strip it down so much. To completely sanitize the language of racial elements would not respect the problem that we need to study.”
Jenkins made clear his opinion that the language should “acknowledge that we probably would not be having this dialogue were it not for the incident of George Floyd’s death on May 25th, 2020.”
“To turn a blind eye to the incident that brought us to talk about this resolution would be a disgrace,” he said.
Still, no one objected when committee members were asked to approve the language deleting the preamble from the resolution. James thanked the other lawmakers for coming together to have a difficult conversation, describing it as one of his “proudest moments” at the Capitol.
Photo caption: Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, proposed a study of policing in Louisiana after national protests about police brutality.
Photo credit: Sarah Gamard/LSU Manship School News Service