An essential piece by Mark Joseph Stern about how Louisiana law protects police officers who break the law, including those who kill people:
Police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, appear to have shot and killed a 37-year-old black man named Alton Sterling on Tuesday morning. A video of the encounter shows the officers pinning him to the ground and then at least one of them shooting him. Louisiana Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has announced that the U.S. Department of Justice will investigate the incident. There are many reasons to be glad that the DOJ, rather than the Baton Rouge Police Department, is leading the investigation, including the DOJ’s independence and impartiality, as well as its mandate to enforce federal civil rights laws. But here’s a less obvious advantage: Had the state left the investigation up to the local police department, Louisiana law would have given the officers 30 days after their alleged wrongdoing before speaking to investigators.
This grace period is one of several laws in the state’s Police Bill of Rights that gives law enforcement officers suspected of illegal conduct privileges far beyond those afforded to regular citizens. For instance, the Police Bill of Rights also restricts the amount of time that officers may be interrogated and provides them with the ability to demand breaks for “reasonable periods,” granting officers “rest” and the ability to tend to “personal necessities.” The Police Bill of Rights only applies to internal investigations—but in low-profile cases of wrongdoing, those are often the only investigations that occur.
While some of the special rights granted to police officers are fairly benign, others are seriously troubling for criminal justice reformers. The 30-day grace period, in particular, could allow officers suspected of misconduct to get their stories straight amongst themselves before talking to investigators—in order to present a favorable narrative with no inconsistencies. That risk would be especially strong in a case like Sterling’s, where the most important witness to the alleged crime was the victim himself.
Civil liberties for me, but not for thee…