In the last couple of years, more minorities than whites were hired to police Baton Rouge, reflecting both a growing pool of minority applicants and pointed efforts by the Police Department to diversify as mandated by a decades-old agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
“We’ve been trying to get out from under it,” Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. said, referencing the consent decree.
Since the early 1980s, both the BRPD and the Baton Rouge Fire Department, along with scores of other civil service agencies across Louisiana, have been under an agreement requiring them to become more demographically similar to the communities they served. While most agencies have been released from the suit over the years — including Lake Charles’ and Shreveport’s police and fire departments — the Baton Rouge departments remain among the few still in the shadow of the decree.
Even as the city has become majority black, which it has been since 2000, the city’s police force and firefighters remain overwhelmingly white.
According to the most recent numbers available from the Police Department, two-thirds of its “sworn personnel” are white.
Meanwhile, about two-fifths of the city is white, according to U.S. Census data.
Recently, though, for the Police Department, the academies of new recruits have been much more demographically similar to Baton Rouge than in years past.
“I think prior to last year the recruitment efforts were lackluster,” said Metro Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards, whose district in north Baton Rouge consists predominantly of black residents. “And I think that bears out in the numbers.”
At the beginning of the current academy, the 81st, which began in late April, 41 percent of the recruits were white, 48 percent were black and 11 percent were another race. In the 80th academy, which began last June, the recruits were about one-third white and two-thirds black, according to Police Department data.
Rewind several years, to the 78th academy, which began in 2012, and the makeup was 62 percent white, 35 percent black and 3 percent other. There was an even higher percentage of white recruits than minority recruits in the 79th academy, which began in February 2013 — weeks before Dabadie was sworn in as the department’s provisional police chief.
Dabadie said the more representative recruitment is “a sign that we’re building trust in the community.” He noted that he has personally reached out to black leaders in the community in an effort to increase diversity at the department.
Mike McClanahan, president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the NAACP, is one of the leaders Dabadie has met with. Although McClanahan wasn’t universally happy with BRPD, he said he’s pleased with the recent emphasis placed on hiring minorities by the chief — a compliment doled out by Edwards, the councilwoman, too.
But McClanahan wasn’t as complimentary about the Fire Department.
“The Police Department, they’ve been making some grounds, maybe not as much as we’d like,” McClanahan said. “On the other hand, the Fire Department, they take one step forward and five steps back.”
The percentage of white “fire suppression” personnel within the Fire Department has actually grown in recent years.
In 2012, such personnel were 67 percent white. Now, they’re about 70 percent white, according to data provided by the department.
“Our first concern and top priority is to provide Class I service in a professional manner to all citizens of Baton Rouge,” said Fire Chief Ed Smith, referring to the department’s top firefighting rating, in a prepared statement. “Keeping this in mind, we continue to strive to adhere to the consent decree and achieve a more diverse workforce.”
As with the Police Department, the Fire Department has seen increasingly diverse applicant pools in recent years, with more minorities sitting for the state Civil Service exam than whites.
In 2010, about 200 white people took the state Civil Service test in Baton Rouge to become a firefighter. Only 140 black people sat for the same test. In the early 2010s, fewer minorities also sat for the police officer test, according to statistics provided by the Office of State Examiner.
In February, though, 95 white people sat for the firefighter test in Baton Rouge compared to 116 black people. For the police test in October, it was 30 whites compared to 57 blacks.
The total drop in applicants could be a reflection of a healthier economy, in which “private sector jobs” are often more attractive, said Robert Lawrence, director of the Office of State Examiner, which administers the Civil Service tests throughout the state.
But throughout the application processes, beginning with the entry Civil Service exam, minorities as a whole generally fail or drop out at a higher percentage, according to statistics provided by the police and fire departments.
Even for the most recent police academy, lauded for its diversity, a lower percentage of black candidates — 58 percent — passed the oral examination than white candidates — 79 percent. During the next step, the psychological exam, only 16 percent of the white candidates failed. But 26 percent of the black candidates failed, Police Department data show.
In the Fire Department application process, the difference in results broken down by race is more striking.
During the January 2012 firefighter Civil Service test in Baton Rouge, for example, 86 percent of the white test takers passed compared to 53 percent of black applicants, according to the Office of State Examiner.
During the next two steps in the process — the Test of Adult Basic Education and the “physical ability test” — white candidates also passed more often than black applicants.
During the TABE administered in February 2013, which is only required for firefighters and serves as the second hurdle in the application process, 63 percent of white test takers passed compared to 39 percent of black applicants. In the physical ability test given the next month, 64 percent of white candidates passed while only 56 percent of black applicants did, according to Fire Department data.
By the time the academy rolled around, the data show, the breakdown was 60 percent white and 40 percent black.
McClanahan, the Baton Rouge NAACP president, said when he raised concerns in a meeting with Chief Smith about the lack of minorities in the department, Smith said it was challenging because more minorities failed the basic entry tests, which the statistics show.
McClanahan said that’s no excuse.
“The good ole’ boy system is still alive and well in the Fire Department,” McClanahan said. “And it’s shown in the way of discipline, and it’s shown in the ranks of the department.”
Looming over every application process for both departments in the past three decades has been the federal consent decree, an agreement between the Department of Justice and numerous Louisiana jurisdictions whose employee demographics were not consistent with the populations they served.
Through spokespeople, the DOJ refused to answer questions about whether the Baton Rouge agencies were making progress. The DOJ also refused to explain whether the agencies were under any sort of pressure to adhere to the agreement, or whether it’s common for consent decrees to last decades without being resolved.
Randall Schmidt, a clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago School of Law’s Employment Discrimination Project, said it’s unusual for a federal consent decree to go on so many years without being dissolved.
But Baton Rouge isn’t alone, as other cities or public agencies have remained under federal watch for even longer periods of time, Schmidt said, pointing to the city of Chicago as an example.
“Every consent decree is a little different,” he said.
Richard Ugelow, who worked for decades as an attorney in the DOJ’s Civil Rights division, said a number of challenges make enforcing decrees similar to the Baton Rouge agreement difficult.
“As a practical matter, there are a lack of federal resources to enforce the extant numerous consent decrees, like the one in Baton Rouge,” said Ugelow, who now works as a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law.
Ugelow also said courts generally will not set strict numerical requirements to enforce decrees like the one for Baton Rouge.
“Employment quotas are inherently suspect and almost certainly unconstitutional,” Ugelow said. “In addition, employment quotas suggest hiring a less qualified over a more qualified individual because of their race, sex or national origin. The Department of Justice does not seek that result and, in any event, the courts would not sanction it.”
In the end, Ugelow said, the solutions usually come down to recruitment.
Baton Rouge’s fire and police chief said their respective agencies have worked hard in recent years to recruit minority candidates.
“The department has spent many hours and dollars to improve recruitment and retention so that we can reach our goal in reference to the consent decree by achieving a more diverse workforce,” Smith, the city’s fire chief, said in a statement.
Dabadie, the police chief, pointed to the demographic breakdown of recent academies as signs of progress.
“We’ve done a lot in the community trying to have our department represent the community we police,” he said.
As for the consent decree, McClanahan, the NAACP representative, said he and others are working to have the matter brought back before a judge.
“Somebody needs to be held in contempt,” he said.
Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.