At the end of July, as homicides in the parish continued to surge far ahead of last year's pace and the number of domestic violence killings rose to unprecedented levels, Baton Rouge police and the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office were dealing with noticeable gaps in their officer corps.
The Sheriff's Office had about 90 openings for deputies, while the Baton Rouge Police Department was looking at about 60, according to numbers provided to The Advocate from both law enforcement agencies for the end of July and beginning of August, respectively.
"When we have a personnel shortage like we do, we have to do some innovative things just to answer calls," said Sheriff Sid Gautreaux. "It takes us away from our main goal of being a proactive department."
Forty-nine of the Sheriff's Office openings are for staff in the Parish Prison. But even taking that into account, the Sheriff's Office is without 10 percent of its public safety officers. There are currently 365 deputies working Uniform Patrol and as specialized detectives, while the Office allots for 407 such positions, leaving it 42 deputies short at the end of July.
Baton Rouge police were not far behind, with 8 percent of their entire department going unstaffed. The city's plan for the Police Department allows for 698 total officers, but only 639 positions are filled.
“All the divisions feel it," said interim Baton Rouge Police Chief Jonny Dunnam. "When I walk into my office, I have division commanders lined up at my door and the number one request is manpower, across the board."
Dunnam said over the years, the department would hover at about 20 open slots.
"The largest I can remember for the last 15 years was probably about 24 officers short,” he said.
Both Dunnam and Gautreaux cannot point to one reason for the decline in numbers, but they both believe it's a combination of factors, stemming from the controversies surrounding law enforcement nationally, natural attrition of officers retiring and moving on, a more attractive — and less dangerous — private sector, and the low pay new officers, especially in Baton Rouge Police, are compensated.
Though Baton Rouge and Sheriff's Office leaders are watching the increase in homicides, neither Dunnam nor Gautreaux believe there's a connection between their current officer shortages and those numbers — but both agree it has been affecting their agencies.
"It's gotten to the point now where we’re just trying to meet the basics," Gautreaux said.
He said he recently decided to move officers from their Special Community Anticrime Team (SCAT) and K-9 units to Uniform Patrol — the men and women who respond to daily calls from residents.
"Since I've been sheriff for more than 10 years, I've never been faced with this shortage and having to move people just to answer the demand of the calls," Gautreaux said.
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Dunnam said he also is working to make sure his Uniform Patrol division doesn't fall behind or get run down, keeping officers there instead of filling openings in more specialized divisions.
Sgt. Bryan Taylor, spokesman for the Union of Baton Rouge Police, said that while those officers are working as hard as they can, it's not easy.
“The guys on the street are feeling it," Taylor said. "They’re having to work more overtime, they're having to go from call to call. They’re doing the best they can with what they have ... We need manpower."
And while Dunnam and Gautreaux are making sure calls are answered, they said it's nearly impossible to expect officers to interact with the community, proactively working to prevent crime or starting on new initiatives — there simply is no down time.
"You're not doing anything but going from call to call," Gautreaux said "You're not getting to build community relations."
He said his agency takes pride in community service and patrols to preemptively reduce crime, but they have been largely left by the wayside of late.
After a meeting on a proposed police-ambassador program, an idea collaboratively conceptualized by Baton Rouge residents through a Metro Council-led committee as a way to improve city police, Dunnam admitted in an interview with The Advocate that implementing such a program will leave his officers "stretched a little thin," but he thinks it would be worth it long term.
"Those programs, we hope, will ultimately reduce crime, which will of course reduce the need for the numbers of officers, if it’s successful," Dunnam said of the police-ambassador program and others proposed by the mayor.
And while Taylor doesn't doubt the good intentions behind these programs, he said they require more investment.
"If they're really committed to making this Police Department what they claim to be a lot more professional, and if they would like to see us implement all of these things, like community policing, we’ve got to be able to recruit," Taylor said. "We've said from the beginning that our pay needs to increase."
That reason, low pay for the tough, demanding job, has been cited over and over again by officers throughout the department as a challenge for recruiting and retaining officers.
First-year Baton Rouge police officers make $33,473 a year, while deputies with the Sheriff's Office make almost $5,000 more initially. State Police troopers, upon completion of all training, are paid at least $15,000 more than new Baton Rouge police officers.
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"It's a conversation that's been out there for a long time, putting our money where our mouth is," said Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who leads a community-based police policy committee. "It's important to the Police Department. It's important to the community. It needs to be a priority."
However, Wicker said she has no specific plans to try to dedicate more money to the department. Wicker said she hopes her committee's community ambassadors —a program still months from fruition — will be an avenue to implement other discussed improvements to the Police Department, like additional funding.
"I really believe that we're going to have to be creative," Wicker said. "It's a concern that we've got to address. We've got to pay our officers."
Mayor Sharon Weston Broome said her administration will look into raise options as they discuss a new contract with the Union of Police, but she did point out that there are many options for increases in pay as officers move up the chain. Upon completing their first year, an officer's salary increases by $6,000, said Baton Rouge police spokesman Sgt. Don Coppola.
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She also said she is also looking into options to fund the community policing initiatives that she has supported.
"The Mayor's Office has identified potential grant opportunities that focus on police community relations and effective policing," Broome said. "We are working with the chief and his staff to prepare and submit applications."
Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg agreed that finding the money to better compensate officers won't be easy, but hopes the council will once again make it a priority.
"We need to look at some out-of-the-box ways that we fund our police," said Freiberg, who often attends Wicker's police policy committee meetings. "I think we've still got a long way to go."
Gautreaux said the Sheriff's Office is struggling financially, which he thinks is an effect of last August's flood. Their funding is not a part of the city-parish's budget, but rather comes from resident property taxes, many of which decreased as homes lost value after the flood.
"As a wife of a former state trooper, to this day, he's telling me things he encountered as a police officer on the street," Wicker said. "People don't recognize the amount of stress and pressure. It's not an easy job, and especially now, coupled with the bad pay, this is not something people will flock to."
Dunnam said he thinks the recent drop is mainly an outcome of attrition, with many officers recently retiring.
However, he and Gautreaux also said the national perception of law enforcement — the dangers of the job driven home by the recent attacks on officers, particularly the three killed in Baton Rouge last year, as well as the negative response toward law enforcement generated by a viral video of a violent police encounter with a member of the public — has made it harder to hire new officers. The uptick in the economy has also led more job seekers to choose the private sector, Dunnam said.
"It’s a lot of things. It might be a perception that people have about doing the job. It’s a dangerous job," Dunnam said. "But I still think you still have a large segment of people who want to be police officers that do it because of the love for their communities and wanting to make a difference.”
The Police Department plans to soon launch its "GeauxBRPD" initiative, which will include a new website with information for potential applicants and a media campaign to enhance recruitment, and the Sheriff's Office is working on a video promotion to do the same.
However, Dunnam said he hopes the department's fall police academy will take in 40 new officers, which would cut deeply into the current shortage. So far the department has received 160 applications for the October academy, which he thinks is a good sign that 30 or 40 will make it through.
In the meantime, Dunnam said he wants to reassure the community that immediate policing needs are being met.
"The fact that we're that many officers short, the level of service hasn't changed because we're filling that time with overtime," Dunnam said. "We're not going to change our level of service."