Since officially taking the helm of a divided and downtrodden department one year ago, Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. has spent his time at the top mollifying the troops, gradually lifting what many described as a once-widespread mood of frustration among the rank and file.
“There’s no doubt the morale is up,” Dabadie’s boss, East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden, said.
“The chief goes out and spends time with the officers. He jumps their tails when they need to be jumped. And at the same time, he’s always looking for more and better ways to provide an efficient service to the citizens of Baton Rouge.”
Dabadie inherited a department wracked by turmoil that culminated in a contentious showdown between Holden and former Police Chief Dewayne White early last year. Holden fired White in February, appointing Dabadie — then White’s chief of staff — to take over as chief on an interim basis. About six months later, Holden made the move official, elevating Dabadie to his current position on July 31, 2013.
“It hasn’t eaten me yet,” Dabadie joked of the job’s demanding nature. “What’s not turning gray is turning loose.”
That may be a stretch. For a man with a 50th birthday approaching come March, Dabadie stays unusually fit by indulging in a healthy combination of steady jogs and popular high-intensity workout programs such as CrossFit and P90x.
“I mix it up,” Dabadie said. “I guess I get bored.”
When he’s not fulfilling his official duties, which over his nearly three decades at the department evolved from nitty-gritty police work to his current role at the helm often teeming with public relations gigs, Dabadie enjoys riding his motorcycle and fishing. He also spends time honing his welding and carpentry skills when he can, as evident by the two waist-high, dark maple bookshelves he crafted sitting inside his office.
“I like to piddle in my shop,” Dabadie said.
More often than not, however, he’s focused on ways to improve not just his own department but also the working relationships between the Police Department and other agencies.
“He has done a good job of dealing with the complexities within his department and how that affects law enforcement in general,” East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said. The sheriff also said Dabadie has made changes to maximize cooperation between the department and the Sheriff’s Office.
Gautreaux only had one complaint about Dabadie.
“He needs to quit talking about his football days at Baker High School,” Gautreaux, a fellow Baker product, joked. “He was not as good as he thinks he was.”
Under White, the relationship between the Police Department and the local police union grew contentious. But that has drastically changed under the new regime. “We have zero complaints,” Chris Stewart, president of Baton Rouge Union of Police Local 237, said. “We have a very, very good working relationship with this chief. Even if I stretched, I couldn’t think of anything negative to say.”
Stewart described Dabadie as a decisive, fair and accommodating leader.
“I certainly don’t want to relive the past,” Stewart noted.
During the tumultuous ending to White’s tenure, many leaders in the black community came out in support of White, lauding the former chief for his efforts to address their concerns. The pressure then fell on Dabadie’s shoulders to continue the pattern.
“I believe Chief Dabadie has been one of the most responsive chiefs that we’ve had in the recent past,” said Metro Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards, whose north Baton Rouge district is made up predominantly of African-American residents. The progress made under Chief White has not yielded under Dabadie’s command, she said.
“I believe he’s continued that legacy,” Edwards said. A recent uptick in crime in some neighborhoods concerns her, she said, but she’s confident local law enforcement will do its job effectively.
Mike McClanahan, president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, complimented the chief’s accessibility.
“I like Dabadie,” McClanahan said. “He’s reachable.”
But McClanahan also said the NAACP will continue fighting to increase diversity within the department, which for decades has been under a federal consent decree to hire more minorities.
The Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination project, known commonly as BRAVE, remains the department’s most high-profile crime-fighting initiative. The multiagency project focused in much of north Baton Rouge combines the efforts of law enforcement, social programs and faith-based groups to reduce violence among juvenile gangs. It’s been credited by many with contributing to a citywide reduction in homicides since BRAVE began in fall 2012.
On the topic of crime deterrence, the mayor-president said he and the chief speak often, frequently mulling over ways to make crime hot spots safer, Holden said.
“He’s well aware of what needs to be done,” Holden said. “And he is not anybody’s play toy.”
Another high-priority initiative for the department under Dabadie has been to improve the communication not only among the many divisions inside the Police Department, but also between officers and the residents they serve.
“They didn’t communicate well. They were more abrupt. They were more sharp,” Dabadie said, attributing the shortcomings to the generally low morale of the department he inherited. “And I think by getting that morale back up over the last 18 months, it changed the way that they’re talking to the community. Now, I’m sure there are instances where I have officers who are not doing that exactly. It’s not a perfect world. But I think for the most part, we’re doing a lot better.”
The circumstantial evidence for Dabadie lies in the rumor mill. He’s heard good things. But the more reliable proof revealed itself in the number of complaints the department has received from the public, as well as those generated by other officers. Both kinds of complaints have decreased since he took over, Dabadie said.
“All of those things indicate we are doing a better job,” he said, adding that there is always more room for improvement. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
But so far, he’s had fun. He especially enjoys letters or emails from the public complimenting his officers for a job well done or for random acts of kindness. One woman recently wrote a note to him on a piece of paper that looked like a napkin to express her gratitude after an officer stopped to help her change a tire on the side of the road, Dabadie said.
“She said, ‘I was lost. I didn’t know what to do,’ ” Dabadie recalled. “She said, ‘By the time I turned around, I saw a police officer coming up behind me, and the nicest officer in the world got out and changed my tire.’”
Follow Ben Wallace on Twitter @_BenWallace.