As downtown Baton Rouge evolves into a more vibrant urban center, the Police Department has tried to keep pace by promising a fully-staffed, round-the-clock precinct.
But despite the expansion of one of the city’s fastest-growing areas — the number of downtown businesses jumped 13 percent in the past year — Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. told the Downtown Development District in May that his hopes of improving the police presence in the city’s hub hasn’t panned out.
The chief said he’s had trouble hiring enough qualified officers amid the competition from other agencies and the changing views on police work to make the new precinct a reality.
Dabadie had said in February 2015 that by October the agency would add 10 officers — for a total of 20 — to its downtown division, split between a storefront office on Third Street and an underground bureau within City Hall.
The department declined to say how many lawmen are stationed there now, citing officer safety concerns, but the stark office in City Hall is often empty, especially during the day when the lights are frequently off.
The slowdown of progress at the downtown precinct is a symptom, Dabadie said, of recruitment woes facing an agency whose structure is sometimes at odds with a younger generation more accustomed to leapfrogging from job to job or to getting paid more upfront.
“Law enforcement is just not the career path that a lot of people want to choose anymore. It doesn’t pay a lot of money. There’s not a lot of glamour in it, and the scrutiny that has come on police officers in the last three to five years doesn’t help either,” Dabadie said recently.
To combat the problem, the department is launching a new recruitment push dubbed GeauxBRPD, inspired by the New Orleans Police Department’s hiring website. Last week, the Metro Council approved a $19,945 contract to fund the project, which includes publishing an interactive website for applicants and possibly creating promotional videos.
The department is budgeted for 698 officers and has 31 open slots. Police expect to hire more officers by the end of the year, but they’re losing almost as many through attrition. They anticipate making a net gain of five.
That’s been the pattern over the past four years with the department ending with a net gain of officers, but not enough to significantly add to its force. In 2013, the agency had a net loss of 16 officers. Those who leave are fairly evenly split between retirement and resignation.
If the department doesn’t hire the full staff provided for in the budget, the agency can use the leftover money for other purposes, said Lt. Jonny Dunnam, a department spokesman.
Several years ago, the department would see 400, even 500 prospective officers send in résumés each time the organization put out a call for new cadets. Now, it’s not uncommon for the agency to see fewer than 100 applications.
“A pool of 70 applicants is poor. Very poor,” said Sgt. Neal Noel, who showed up at the Metro Council meeting when the department’s recruiting project funding was approved.
The last time the police scheduled an academy class, Dabadie wanted to enroll 30 cadets, but only a few dozen people applied, and the department could find about 25 suitable cadets, Dunnam said.
There’s a potential bright spot this summer, though, with the department expecting to see about 200 to 250 sign up for the civil service exam, the first step in the hiring process, Dunnam said.
From there, prospective cadets have to undergo a vetting process that includes background checks and physicals as well as psychiatric evaluations, in addition to regular job interviews.
Part of the allure to finding a job in law enforcement with any departments besides city police can be found in the numbers. The starting salary of a Baton Rouge officer is $32,979, said Cpl. L’Jean McKneely, a department spokesman.
The starting pay for State Police troopers is $46,610, said spokesman Lt. J.B. Slaton. The State Police is one of the Baton Rouge Police Department’s main competitors for candidates, especially given one of the State Police’s largest divisions, Troop A, is based in the Capital City area, said police union president Chris Stewart.
“We feel like we’re going up against them when we try to get the best and the brightest,” Stewart said. “So that hinders us a great deal.”
In New Orleans, a city with an even deeper officer deficit, pay for recruits starts at $40,391, according to that department’s website.
The New Orleans Police Department is short 96 officers, said spokesman Tyler Gamble. Its current strength is 1,170 commissioned officers, but the organization is budgeted for 1,266, he said.
There are other cultural and generational factors that affect recruitment for the Baton Rouge Police as well, Stewart said.
“A lot of people (now) use the agency as a stepping stone,” Stewart said.
He said each year, the department loses a certain number of officers to other agencies, usually to the State Police, or a federal agency like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Drug Enforcement administration, the FBI or the U.S. Marshals Service.
“(The younger officers) get a few years experience here, and that makes them more appealing to those federal agencies,” Stewart said.
Dabadie pointed out that though the retirement package with the city police is still a benefit, especially compared to what’s offered in the private sector, younger applicants aren’t making career choices based on what their retirement will look like.
“When I came on 30 years ago, my full intention was to retire from the Baton Rouge Police Department. The people that we’re seeing now, their best guarantee is ‘Hey, I might give you five years,’ ” Dabadie said.
But the advantage of working for a mid-size city police department, Dabadie said, is the unique police work offered that is not available within the other agencies.
The Baton Rouge Police Department has an array of specialized units, including homicide, K-9, narcotics, burglary, motorcycle and mounted patrol, to name a few, Dabadie and Stewart said.
For uniform patrol officers, who are the backbone of the agency, any given day is unpredictable, Stewart said.
“We could go from a domestic (call), to a burglary, to an armed robbery. We work so many types of crimes and calls for service,” he said.
Dabadie said at the end of the day, the choice to become an officer goes beyond salary.
“It has to be a passion,” he said. “All agencies are going to have pay issues, but by joining BRPD, you become part of this huge family that this community embraces right now, and if you’re really about making change, then this is where you want to be.”