East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council members along with participants from the police policy committee have started a campaign to recruit potential community police ambassadors, volunteers they hope will serve as agents to merge the divide between the community.

The applications for the positions opened last week, and 20 were already submitted as of Friday, said Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who has been spearheading the committee along with Councilman Trae Welch since the spring of 2016. 

"We anticipate there's going to be an overwhelming response, which is great," Wicker said. "It means people in the community want to have their voices heard."

Baton Rouge Police, from both former Chief Carl Dabadie and current interim Chief Jonny Dunnam, has pledged its support of the ambassador program. Dabadie and Dunnam were involved in the discussions of the program throughout the spring and summer — and Dunnam has offered to help in training the ambassadors.

"Everybody seems to be very positive about this and thinks (the ambassadors are) going to help in moving those relationships forward in a positive direction," Wicker said. She held the first informational and recruiting meeting for the ambassadors on Sept. 19 at Delmont Library, and though she said the turnout was low, the word is just starting to get out.

On Friday, Wicker's staff disseminated a flyer on recruiting meetings, as well as began promoting the application.

The program aims to have two ambassadors from every neighborhood within the city of Baton Rouge working as liaisons between residents and the police. Program leaders have not yet placed either a minimum or a maximum on the number of ambassadors. Applications are open both online and on paper. Wicker said they will continue to accept applications through at least the end of October.

The ambassadors will be essentially self-selected, meaning no one will choose one candidate over another, but to become an ambassador people will have meet requirements of living in the city limits, being of certain age and demonstrating through the application their involvement and interest in their community. They will also have to complete the required training, which has parameters still unspecified but will include information on law enforcement and the legal process, the committee previously decided.

"I think exactly what Trae (Welch) and I set out to accomplish has happened," Wicker said. "The community — which includes Council members, residents, police officers — everybody really had a chance to talk through the issues and then strategize together."

Momentum for the group picked up after the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, by a white Baton Rouge Police officer in July 2016. Many of the ideas the committee has championed — including the ambassador program — came from open community forums that drew hundreds in the aftermath of the shooting, which was caught on a cell phone video and disseminated on social media.

The committee partnered with local academic institutions to draft policy recommendations that stemmed from the community forums and which were presented to the Metro Council in May. Wicker said she hopes the community ambassadors — one of the recommended changes for Baton Rouge Police — will be able to move forward the other proposals, like a citizen review board for police complaints and better policies for how officers respond to mental health calls.

"Life has been breathed into it," Wicker said. "We'll have people at the table who can move (our recommendations) forward."

Richard Slaughter, the resident who first brought to the city the idea for "community police ambassadors," said he's excited to see the program taking off. Though he is not eligible to apply because he now resides in Port Allen, he said he is still committed to seeing it through. 

"I just want to make sure it's done the right way and we don't get off to the wrong start," Slaughter said."I've been in Baton Rouge most of my life; I'm invested."

Slaughter said he plans to be at the meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Scotlandville Library. After that, meetings will follow at that time on Tuesdays: at the Jones Creek Library on Oct. 3, Bluebonnet Library on Oct. 10, and Eden Park Library on Oct. 24. There are two other meetings to be scheduled at Broadmoor Baptist Church and St. Aloysius Catholic Church Parish Hall, with time and dates pending.

Slaughter said he plans to reach out to his friends, colleagues and family who are eligible — and qualified — to become ambassadors. He believes it's important that ambassadors already have influence in their neighborhoods and are dedicated to improving the area, and he said it helps if they already have a relationship with police.

"I want the right people involved," Slaughter said. "I just want to see things get better."

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.