A panel studying a potential merger of law enforcement agencies in East Baton Rouge Parish agreed to double its size Wednesday to include a broader range of input.
Nearly two years after its inception, the Law Enforcement Unification Committee met for the first time to revive a decades-old discussion about possibly consolidating the Baton Rouge Police Department and the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office. The group is examining whether merging the agencies would eliminate a duplication of services and save taxpayer dollars.
Committee members acknowledged a host of thorny questions that remain and, at a brainstorming session, floated the prospect of hiring an outside firm to take an in-depth look at the financial and legal aspects of consolidating.
“To take it a step further, I think that’s the next step you’d have to take,” said Metro Councilman Joel Boé, who was selected chairman of the committee without opposition. “We all have to be prepared that the result of that may be to do nothing.”
The committee, established by council resolution in April 2011, originally consisted of three council members and one representative each from the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office. But because the group is looking into the creation of a single, parishwide law enforcement agency, committee members decided to include representatives from the Mayor-President’s Office, City Constable’s Office, and the cities of Central, Zachary and Baker.
“We can’t make it too big because it’s not going to function, but we don’t want to leave anybody out that’s pertinent to the conversation,” Boé said, adding the new members must be approved by council.
Councilman John Delgado said the committee should explore all possibilities, including keeping the status quo.
“I think we need to keep in mind that it may not be possible,” Delgado said.
Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who took part in a 2002 study of city-parish government efficiency, urged the committee to focus on fact finding and not be swayed by politics or preconceived notions. She said it may be possible to consolidate certain functions without jettisoning an entire department.
“I think there are some areas of inefficiencies that we could realistically look at and tackle in short order,” Wicker said.
The committee agreed to meet at 2 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month for the foreseeable future. The group also will be moving its meetings to the Metro Council chambers from an adjacent conference room.
The prospect of merging the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office was explored in the late 1960s, late 1970s and most recently in 2002, when a group called the Mayor’s Committee on Revenues and Expenditures recommended the city-parish “explore ways of achieving greater efficiency and coordination among local law enforcement.” That committee reported that the appointment of a single, cabinet-level public safety director with oversight over police, fire and emergency services “could be a first step.”
Merging departments, however, would require legislative approval and an amendment to the local plan of government, which would have to go before the voters. Kristen Craig, of the Parish Attorney’s Office, told committee members Wednesday she would begin compiling case law and attorney general’s opinions so they could become familiar with relevant legal issues.
“No matter what route you take, it’s going to take some legal finagling,” Craig said.
Mayor-President Kip Holden has said he opposes a merger of the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office. Holden’s chief administrative officer, William Daniel, told the committee that Holden is “certainly not against efficiency” but is struggling to understand the committee’s motivation for moving forward.
“He thinks it’s going to be a very difficult thing to do given all of the differences,” said Daniel, who agreed to represent the Mayor-President’s Office on the committee. Holden wants to be sure the committee is not “inventing a solution for a problem that may not exist,” Daniel added.
Aside from political opposition, a number of other obstacles stand to complicate a merger. The city-parish would have to determine how to combine police civil service employees with sheriff’s deputies, who are not governed by civil service law. The departments also have different retirement systems, pay scales and guidelines for promoting officers.
e_SDLqYou don’t make rank at the Baton Rouge Police Department until your time comes up,” said Sgt. Jonathan Dunnam, the Police Department’s representative on the committee. “That’s not the case at the Sheriff’s Office. I’m sure there are concerns on both sides with regards to that.”
Col. Lawrence McLeary, who represents the Sheriff’s Office on the committee, said even though police officers are paid to follow orders, many become set in their ways with age. He expressed concern about combining the differing cultures of the agencies.
“All police agencies have their own culture,” McLeary said, “and that’s the only thing that would have to be overcome.”
McLeary retired from the Louisiana State Police before joining the Sheriff’s Office.