The proposed firing of Police Chief Dewayne White has stirred mixed emotions in Baton Rouge, with sentiments ranging from shock and dismay to acceptance and relief.
While the police union has sided with Mayor-President Kip Holden, who will decide whether to fire the chief following a hearing in the Metro Council chambers at 9 a.m. Monday, White has found outspoken support among some leaders in the black community.
Members of the clergy, elected officials and business owners said in interviews last week that White’s departure might imperil the relationships and progress the Police Department has made in the city’s historically black communities. Many of them said White’s efforts toward mending fences along with his approach to fighting crime in blighted areas like the 70805 ZIP code set him apart from his predecessors.
“If you have something that’s working, I don’t see the need to change horses in the middle of the race,” said Frank Brown, owner of Bayou Café and Catering on Airline Highway. “In my place, they’re talking about how he’s the only chief that came in and started addressing some of the problems that he saw. I hear a lot, from black and white people, that the area is being patrolled a lot better, and our crime is definitely going down.”
Kwame Asanté, president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said White has reached out to him and to other black leaders to provide updates on crime issues and to seek their help in engaging members of the community. White has been willing to confront allegations of police brutality, he said, whereas chiefs before him refused.
“If there was a gang-related presence or something in the community, he felt like we needed to know about it,” Asanté said. “He was open to talking about how we can help.”
Holden, however, said those praising White for inroads he made in the black community are making a “sleight of hand” argument that ignores the chief’s questionable behavior.
“This issue is not about the contacts he’s made in the black community,” Holden said in a telephone interview Saturday. “This issue is about the fact that we can document insubordination in a number of cases by a department head who is appointed by the mayor.”
Holden last week outlined a laundry list of reasons he is considering terminating White, including claims that White repeatedly violated departmental policy, leaked confidential information and shredded documents. White also is accused of failing to discipline an officer who lied under oath and abusing his discretion by making inappropriate transfers in the department.
White’s attorney initially said that he had been fired, but Holden later clarified that White had been placed on administrative leave with pay.
“The rules are the rules and the rules are there to be followed,” Holden said. “If somebody does not follow the rules, then I have two choices: just go along with the status quo or look at the possibility of making a change.”
During White’s tenure, the city-parish began the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination Project, a widely praised crime-fighting initiative that has targeted violence in the Capital City’s high-crime areas. Five police officers were assigned to work in the 70805 area to earn trust from residents so they might be more willing to provide information about criminal activity.
The Police Department and other agencies working with BRAVE have made a concerted effort to reach out to the clergy as well.
“I was encouraged to see (White) make public efforts to reach out to the African-American community,” said Pastor Robert Davis, head of the Berean Seventh-Day Adventist Congregation on Fairfields Avenue. “We’ve had some police chiefs here who have tried. We’ve had others who appeared they were not making as much of an effort in their outreach.”
But Holden said White is not the first police chief to make progress in the black community. He also said the credit for BRAVE does not lie with White but with the mayor-president’s office and District Attorney Hillar Moore III.
“They’re trying to build him up as he’s the one responsible for the BRAVE program,” Holden said. “The BRAVE program is Hillar Moore and a guy named Kip Holden whose office got the grant. What they’re doing is playing sleight of hand.”
Holden said it would be “untrue” to suggest that White has the support of the majority of black ministers, but several contacted by The Advocate last week made clear that they appreciate White’s efforts.
The Rev. Lee T. Wesley, of Community Bible Baptist Church, said White “undoubtedly had developed relationships with the black community.”
“They’re saddened by what has happened,” Wesley said. “By the same token, we don’t think his departure, if it comes to that, is going to have an impact on crime in the black community either positively or negatively because the person that replaces him will have the same responsibility that he had, and hopefully the same passion for helping us decrease the rate of crime.”
Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said White has made a point of attending black churches and community events.
“It’s different when you have a Caucasian come out saying, ‘I want to help you at the same time I want to hold you accountable for the bad, but I’m not going to let people abuse you because of your race or because of your neighborhood or because of your ethnic background,’ ” Marcelle said. “That’s what he stood for.”
The Magnolia State Peace Officers Association, a group established by minorities concerned about the quality of law and order, issued a statement lauding White for restructuring parts of the Police Department and demanding equal treatment of all citizens, regardless of their economic status.
“Though many disagreed with some of his actions,” the statement said, “the chief was willing to make the unpopular decision regardless of whom it affected.”
But White also has been accused of making intemperate statements about race, which have drawn the ire of the police union.
A letter outlining Holden’s case for firing White included a claim that White “made inflammatory public statements to the press wherein (he) inappropriately accused a large segment of the BRPD of racial bias in an apparent effort to curry favor with the press and certain public figures.”
Holden was referring to an October 2011 incident when White said in a radio interview that some officers had become so accustomed to dealing with criminals who are black that it “becomes ingrained … that most people (the officers) come across with that color of skin are probably criminals.”
The police union’s president, Chris Stewart, said White’s remarks were inaccurate and offensive.
The Rev. Ronald T. Williams, of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, a Holden supporter, said he wants to hear more from both sides before deciding whether White deservedly ended up on the hot seat. After listening in on a barber shop conversation Friday, Williams said he found there are mixed emotions in the black community.
“Some people do have praise for his support of situations in African-American communities, particularly crime that’s going on there,” Williams said. “And then there are others who said he was not doing enough, and that they didn’t see any real proof of what he’d been doing.”
Pat McCallister LeDuff, a founder of the Citizens against Drugs and Violence, a north Baton Rouge advocacy group, said White built on momentum started by former police Chief Jeff LeDuff, no relation, to build trust between the Police Department and predominantly black neighborhoods.
“White got involved and he took it to another level,” Pat LeDuff said. “He made sure officers in the community would come out, not just when there was a shooting, but when we had other activities and functions.
“I thought we were on the right track and heading in the right direction,” she added. “This is the bottom falling out.”
Following the chief’s 9 a.m. hearing Monday with Holden, Marcelle and Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards will host a town meeting in the Metro Council chambers to allow the public a chance to comment.
Edwards said 99 percent of people she’s heard from have been supportive of the chief. She said she fears White’s pending termination could be a setback for the community.
“Anyone who thinks race relations in Baton Rouge are perfect is in denial,” Edwards said, “so it’s really important to have trust with the people who can literally take your life in their hands.”