BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Some top brass in our area are fighting to change a law that was established to protect them. They say some of the language in it is keeping them from disciplining some of their own officers. Has it become a bill of privilege?
It is hard to forget the images of protests that happened in the heat of summer following the 2016 shooting of Alton Sterling, a man allegedly gunned down and killed by police officers outside the Triple S Food Store. The officers were put on paid leave pending the outcome of the investigation. When they were not immediately fired, protesters called for the ouster of several public officials including the mayor-president and the police chief.
Gonzales Police Chief Sherman Jackson said he has been there before and understands why.
"When something goes wrong, the first they do is call out the police chief," Jackson said. "They want him fired, gone. The next person is the mayor, when actually, all we are doing is following the guidelines set forth in this document."
Chief Jackson is referring to the Police Officer Bill of Rights, a document he said he fought for as a young officer back in the 1990s. The statute protects the legal rights of law enforcement officers. What started as a two-page document has evolved into a seven-page guide that dictates how a chief investigates his employees. When a police employee is under investigation, there is a certain set of standards that needs to be followed. Interviews and interrogations must happen within a certain time frame and be recorded. Under civil service law, the officer can have representation during the interrogation. Jackson said that creates a problem when a polygraph test is administered.
"We all know we won't find a polygraphist in this country to implement a polygraph test with a lawyer in the room asking the questions," Jackson added.
The statute states, "there shall be no discipline, demotion, dismissal or action of any sort taken against a law enforcement officer unless those minimum standards are met."
It states, any action taken against an officer without meeting those standards is an "absolute nullity." That means the disciplinary action can be overturned. Jackson said those two words, sometimes prevents him from doing his job.
"It doesn't belong in the Bill of Rights. I've done dozens of disciplines and had very few challenges, but here lately, it looks like everything is being challenged," Jackson explained.
Zachary Police Chief David McDavid said he also has run into problems enforcing certain laws on his employees because of the statute.
"It really handcuffs us on a lot of stuff," McDavid said.
His beef is with the 365-rule, which gives police officers who become ill or injured on the job an entire year to recover. He said some officers are abusing it.
"You can take off all you want as long as you got a doctor's note and come back for one day and you're back off again," McDavid explained.
In other words, if you're a police officer, there's virtually no limit for the amount of time you can take-off sick. Your doctor's note can excuse you for up to 365 days, but if you return to work on day 366, you can then submit a new note from that doctor excusing you for the next year.
"I've had to go to other agencies to get people to work," McDavid added.
McDavid said not only does he have to continue paying the officers who are out, but he also has to fork over more money in overtime pay for someone else to do their jobs. He said that has led to serious budget issues.
McDavid would like to go back to the system where employees earn their sick time, but the changes that he and some other police chiefs across the state would like must first happen at the Louisiana Legislature.
"They are the judge and the jury. It's over," Jackson said.
Jackson joined Louisiana Representative Tony Bacala before the Judiciary Committee last May as he presented a bill aimed at amending the Bill of Rights. The proposed law would have exempted polygraph exams as interrogations in the police officers bill of rights and would prevent officers from having an attorney present during questioning.
"We're just trying to say that if you have a polygraph and a lawyer is not allowed in the room, we are not going to nullify every other piece of information gathered in the investigation," Bacala said.
But the bill failed in committee 8 to 4.
"I just don't think I can get comfortable with this concept," Rep. Chris Hazel said.
"I'm just not comfortable with somebody being able to be fired over a polygraph," Rep. Stephen Carter said.
"It's a catch 22. You can't win. You can't lose," Rep. Robert Johnson said.
9News took the chiefs' concerns to Louisiana Representative Terry Landry, who has served more than 30 years in a law enforcement career, including a term as commander of Louisiana State Police.
"I think the intent of the legislation was to have a speedy investigation that is not prolonged and hangs over a guy's career," Landry said. "But I do know that from being a police administrator that there are interruptions that are beyond your control."
Landry currently serves on the Criminal Justice Committee of the Louisiana Legislature. He said he is willing to sit down with law enforcement leaders and lawmakers to discuss changing the language in the Bill of Rights so that it better serves them and the public.
"I think it's too tight. I think there needs to be some flexibility," Landry added.
Chief Jackson said he is not giving up.
"I don't know how long I'm going to be in office, but I am going to do as much as I can to make that change," Jackson explained.
Both the Louisiana Chiefs of Police Association (LACP) and Louisiana Sheriff's Association supported the bill. The Louisiana State Troopers Association (LSTA), however, opposed it. Executive Director of the LSPA David Young said the LSTA attended the Judiciary Committee hearing to support the LACP and was unaware they had changed their position when the bill was amended.
Otherwise, Young said the LSTA may have changed its stance on the proposal. Young added, the LSTA is willing to sit down with lawmakers if the bill should come up again to discuss whether is something that could benefit LSP personnel.