The words "police reform" became a frequent buzzword in Baton Rouge over the last 10 months, coming up at protests, political forums and community meetings.
After Alton Sterling was fatally shot last July, some throughout the city said the altercation should serve as a starting point for a broader overhaul of the Baton Rouge Police Department. Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, sworn in this January, campaigned on the promise of implementing several proposed changes. Community groups like faith-based Together Baton Rouge developed policy suggestions, while two Metro Council members started holding meetings with the police and residents.
But Baton Rouge community activists say they are not convinced BRPD has transformed enough to avoid another Sterling-like incident. They note that in private conversations with community members and Sterling's relatives, federal prosecutors strongly criticized the behavior of the officer who shot Sterling, particularly the way the 37-year-old Baton Rouge man was approached before the encounter turned deadly. While offering that assessment of the officer's tactics, the feds earlier this month also determined there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal civil rights charges.
Elected officials, on the other hand, say they are mostly pleased with the rate of their progress, although they acknowledge more work ahead. And people representing the police department say they have made tremendous steps in the past 10 months, though some of BRPD’s political advocates say the vague "reform" talk has become overbearing and that the agency is already a first-rate department.
In one of the first major changes, Broome announced in February that the police department would codify five use-of-force protocols into policy. They require that officers give verbal warnings and de-escalate encounters before resorting to deadly force, although provide an exception if an officer's life is in danger. The policy forbids shooting at moving vehicles and using chokeholds, and it requires officers to report when they see a colleague using excessive force.
Broome and the Metro Council also recently moved forward with a $2.25 million purchase to outfit all BRPD patrol officers with body cameras, a move after a 13-month pilot program.
BRPD cadets are also participating in a program requiring them to examine and discuss race. And the department is working on a contract to bring implicit bias training to officers this summer, which would teach them to recognize their subconscious prejudices and how they affect their police work.
In recent separate interviews, both BRPD Chief Carl Dabadie and Broome said they were happy with the direction the department has moved over the past 10 months.
“I don't ever want to minimize the use of force policy because it was a big step for us and it was really connected to the concerns of what happened last year with Mr. Sterling, the escalation that took place, the concerns about use of force that took place,” Broome said.
Dabadie said his department has made a concerted effort to be more visible.
"Since the incident in July of last year, we've attended every community meeting, we've been a part of all the roundtable discussions," Dabadie said. "Some of those meetings have been ugly, but I do believe it was important we were there and hear what the community has to say."
Not everyone has seen the past 10 months through such rosy lenses.
Rev. Dale Flowers of New Sunlight Baptist Church said he has yet to see any real change — or effort to make change — from the police department, but he partly takes the blame as well.
"We both dropped the ball, law enforcement and the community at large," Flowers said.
Myra Richardson, the 18-year-old co-founder of The Wave youth-led justice movement agreed. She described seeing “a lot of lackluster effort,” and said the use-of-force policy and body cameras policy are good steps but that they feel small compared to systemic injustices she sees in Baton Rouge.
One perennial complaint is that more than 65 percent of BRPD officers are white in a city that's 55 percent black. That point was the focus of a recent letter that the Coalition of African American Pastors for Justice penned to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The group, including Flowers, asked Sessions to enforce a decades-old consent decree that the police force be representative of the community they serve, based on both race and gender.
Flowers said they have not heard back from Washington, D.C. yet.
Civilian oversight of the police department has also been one of the most frequent asks from community members, though it has not gained much traction yet in political circles. For its part, the BRPD Union is against extended civilian oversight. President Sgt. Bryan Taylor said the Civil Service board that reviews department disciplinary actions against officers could be considered civilian oversight.
But Together Baton Rouge, the Urban League of Louisiana and a coalition of eight activist groups who recently attended a Metro Council meeting have all separately asked for some kind of civilian agency, which typically allows for outside reviews of police use of force. Together Baton Rouge wants an independent police monitor, while the Urban League of Louisiana has called for a civilian review board or other agency to monitor excessive and fatal force from officers.
Similar calls for oversight have arisen at weekly meetings started by Metro Council members Tara Wicker and Trae Welch and that usually include law enforcement and community members. Wicker said they will soon make a policy push focused on training, compensation, promotion practices and more.
Baton Rouge Community College criminal justice professor Paul Guidry is compiling the data for Wicker’s group, but said he worries the police department is not being proactive enough.
"If they are all truly about reform, then why didn't they present something?" Guidry asked. "It would have been more beneficial and more meaningful had the police department stood up and made some meaningful movement."
Walter "Geno" McLaughlin attends almost all of Wicker's community-policing meetings, as well as any other discussion on race relations or police reform, and pointed out that one group that has not been as receptive to change is the BRPD union. However, he applauded the officers who have shown up to police reform discussions, saying “they are starting to get it.”
Taylor disputed the idea that the BRPD union has not been involved enough in discussions about the department. He said the groups at Wicker's meetings have made "great progress," that he's attended as many as he could and that he has helped bring in other officers to answer questions.
“We are actively involved, but again we are not going to sit down and talk to activists because they are self serving," Taylor said. "If they can’t remain relevant then they don't get paid. They become irrelevant. So I believe there are hidden agendas there to keep themselves relevant ... They don’t come to the table with open minds.”
Another push that the union opposed last summer were requirements that would have forced police officers to live in East Baton Rouge Parish. The Metro Council killed the proposed residency requirements last year, with many members saying the police department was already struggling to recruit and they should not turn away qualified applicants based on where they live.
But Rev. Nathan Ryan of Unitarian Church said he would like to see the requirements revived. He said instituting those and raising police pay could help to fix some of the department’s problems, which he described as part of a larger systemic problem.
“Do the police need to do a lot of work to improve their relationship with Baton Rouge?” he asked. “Absolutely. Will that fix everything? Or is it entirely the police’s fault? Absolutely not.”
Civil service changes
One area that the BRPD chief, community members and some elected officials agree could use reform is the civil service system. The system enshrined in state law limits Dabadie's ability to promote officers not based on seniority, and it can also make firing and punishing officers more difficult.
Broome said antiquated civil service laws are one of the biggest obstacles in the way of the 21st century policing she envisions for BRPD, and Dabadie said he would support a push to change civil service, but that it needs to be done legislatively.
Taylor, on the other hand, said the union likes civil service protections. He said they still allow bad officers to be weeded out, but that they also ensure officers are treated equally.
State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, is pushing several criminal justice bills this legislative session and some could affect civil service. He said he would like to see BRPD officers polled to take their temperature on the system. But James said he did not realize how tough it would be to try to change the laws until he started trying to do so.
“Now I recognize the complexity of the issues, the conflicts between local policies and state laws,” he said. “The people want things to happen instantaneously and it’s just not realistic for something this massive.”
For example, James filed House Bill 276 that originally would have limited paid administrative leave for officers under investigation. But he has already amended the bill to eliminate the parts about capping paid administrative leave, and it now focuses on the amount of time officers have to secure legal representation when under investigation.
The paid leave component for officers under investigation has been a concern for some.
“We have enough policies in place already and when they violate these policies, to go home on a paid vacation is not good enough," said activist Arthur “Silky Slim” Reed. “We need to have guidelines on how much administrative pay that they can receive while they are on suspension.”
The officers involved in the Sterling shooting — Blane Salamoni and Howie Lake II — have been on paid administrative leave since the shooting.
James also filed HB 595 that would remove the civil service protections for future BRPD chiefs, as the mayor-president cannot remove a sitting chief without just cause. In other cities, including New Orleans, police chiefs usually serve at the pleasure of a mayor.
The civil service laws protecting the chief have played out publicly. Broome said on the campaign trail that she would replace Dabadie, but the urgency to do so seems to have stalled. Asked whether not having her own hand-picked chief in place has been a roadblock to implementing her vision for policing, Broome said she and Dabadie are working well together.
“The bias training is something that we both talked about and he was in agreement with and we worked on together,” the mayor-president said. “That's a perfect example of being on the same page in terms of wanting change, and wanting to improve the department. But he still understands my motivation for wanting a leadership change.”
Dabadie said he and Broome “haven’t had any issues.”
"Me and the mayor, as everyone knows, she made a lot of comments about me, but we have been working together to bring about these changes," the chief added.
One ongoing discussion is apparently over whether Salamoni and Lake should remain on the force. Community activists have called for the officers to be fired. A BRPD internal affairs investigation into whether the officers followed policy during the incident is ongoing, but officials have indicated a final determination is unlikely until after the Louisiana Attorney General's office rules on whether they will pursue state criminal charges.
Broome said she has been talking to Dabadie about the issue. "The chief and I are having conversations presently around the citizens' concerns as it relates to those two officers," she said.
'Try not to second-guess them'
John Delgado, a former Metro Councilman who now lobbies for the BRPD union, said the terms “police reform” and “community policing” are vague and that people calling for both should be more specific.
Delgado, who ran against Broome for mayor-president, maintained that what she and others have billed as reforms are not entirely new ideas. He said the use of force policies were already being used and the Metro Council was “already leaning in the direction of body cameras” but waiting for the pilot program to finish. Taylor, with the union, agreed that many of the pushes for reform are ideas that BRPD already has in place.
"The things that our mayor made public and the things she desired to have changed are already practices that our law enforcement utilizes and are best practices around the country,” said Metro Councilman Matt Watson, who said it’s a good sign that Broome and BRPD were already seeing eye-to-eye.
His colleague, Metro Councilman Buddy Amoroso, said he’s especially interested the idea of raising the pay of police officers. Their starting salaries are around $32,000 annually.
But Amoroso said people pushing for changes to the department need to realize how difficult of a job the officers have.
"I try not to second-guess them,” he added.
Editor's note: Story changed after publication to clarify circumstances of the Sterling shooting.