Civil Service laws and the police union could stand in the way of some of the goals Baton Rouge’s new police chief wants to accomplish, including putting high-ranking cops back on the streets.
That’s what some previous Baton Rouge police chiefs and former high-level administrators said recently, recalling their personal battles with the Baton Rouge Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board and the Baton Rouge Union of Police Local 237.
Running the Police Department is not like managing a business in the private sector, said Charles Mondrick, who served as interim police chief prior to Dewayne White being named to the top law enforcement position a couple of weeks ago.
“You can’t just do what you want to do,” Mondrick said. “You have to know the ins and outs (of the civil service system and the police union contract) and work within them.”
Established in 1940, the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service system regulates much of what fire and police administrators can do in terms of hiring, firing, demoting and promoting people within a department. The contract between the Police Department and the police union reinforces those regulations and has guidelines of its own.
Following such rules can be frustrating, said Greg Phares, who served as Baton Rouge’s police chief from 1991 to 2001.
“You have to allocate your resources to the good of your city, and when you are restricted from doing that, it makes your job tougher,” Phares said. “It made mine tougher and it will make the new chief’s tougher.”
After being appointed police chief on May 27, White said he would work to change the culture of the Police Department, especially in its upper ranks.
“Right now, we have people who have retired in place,” White said in his interview for the job. “They’re relegated to the status quo. I will put them in positions where they’ll have to earn their paychecks to go forward.”
At a June 2 Metro Council District 6 community meeting, White called the Police Department “top heavy” and said he wants to take ranked officers out of headquarters and put them in the field.
White — who spent 21 years with State Police, which operates under the state civil service system — declined to elaborate on his plans, saying he would talk about them once they are implemented.
Moving people around within the Police Department, motivating them to do their jobs and managing those who cause problems is sometimes easier said than done, former Police Department administrators said.
Lateral moves can be made at will, according to Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service law. Demotions and most other disciplinary actions, however, must be made within the guidelines of the law and are subject to appeal.
Appeals are made to the city’s Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board, which is made up of five members who represent the Mayor’s Office, the Police Department, the Fire Department, LSU and Southern University.
Wayne Rogillio, Baton Rouge’s police chief from 1985 to 1992, said the union controlled the civil service board during his tenure with the department.
He said he sat on the board at one time, and the Fire Department representative told him, “You vote for me and I’ll vote for you.”
“I said, ‘No, no, no,’ ” Rogillio said. “I’m going to vote my conscience.”
As chief, Rogillio said, there were times “I would want to go outside and kick the tires on my car because I’d do something, and they’d say I was wrong when I knew doggone well I was right.”
Jeff LeDuff, who retired in December from his six-year reign as police chief, said he, too, had some of his decisions overturned by the board, and there were times when he appealed them to District Court. But, for the most part, he said, things worked out.
“As long as you follow policy and civil service, the discipline will fall into place,” he said.
Mondrick agreed, saying although the disciplinary process isn’t perfect, it serves a purpose by giving a voice to employees who believe they have been wrongly accused.
The promotions process, however, needs to be overhauled, he said.
Under the current Municipal Civil Service system, promotions are based on test scores and seniority, not qualifications, Mondrick said.
“I don’t like the system,” he said. “It promotes mediocrity.”
Keith Bates, a 27-year veteran of the Police Department who served as LeDuff’s chief of staff, said the current promotions system does not reward people who go above and beyond the call of duty.
“If you are motivated to excel, it’s self-motivation because the promotion is inevitable if you stay the course,” he said.
Phares and LeDuff agreed.
“To a large extent, in a seniority-based civil service system, your motivation as a police officer has to come from inside,” Phares said. “The system does not promote it.”
The majority of Police Department employees are self-motivated, LeDuff said. But, for those who aren’t, the promotions system is the “only way to get a raise.”
A bill enacted into law during the last legislative session created a loophole in the promotional process, allowing deputy chiefs of police positions to be created and filled outside of the seniority-based civil service system.
A Police Department’s governing authority must create the positions via an ordinance, the law says.
The people chosen for such positions must hold the rank of sergeant or above and have at least eight years of law enforcement experience, the law says. Candidates also must pass a basic-skills eligibility test.
State Rep. Chuck Kleckley, R-Lake Charles, the author of the bill, said he included that requirement in the law because he wanted chiefs to be able to choose their closest colleagues.
Police chiefs need “to have an assistant they can trust and depend on and be comfortable with,” Kleckley said. “Under the civil service system, that doesn’t always happen.”
The only jurisdiction that has taken advantage of the law so far is Lake Charles, Kleckley said. The city’s council members recently approved three deputy police chief positions, he said.
State Examiner Melinda Livingston said civil service laws are in place to remove politics from the public safety process and to “provide continuity of public safety protection.”
Administrators “ have a lot of latitude,” under the civil service system, said Livingston, whose office oversees the Baton Rouge Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service system.
Administrators also can demote people for organizational purposes as well as for not being able to properly carry out the duties of their job, Livingston said.
“A lot of people think that when you have a civil service job, you have a job for life, and there’s nothing further from the truth,” she said.
Chris Stewart, president of the Baton Rouge Union of Police Local 237, said the union supports and believes in the civil service system.
The contract between the union and the Police Department, he said, covers everything an officer gets in his benefits package. It does not dictate how a chief chooses to build his department, Stewart added.
“It really doesn’t limit those actions,” he said. “He’s pretty much got carte blanche in that area.”