It became clear last week, during her appearance on a morning radio talk show, that Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome won't likely receive the support of the Baton Rouge police union during her reelection campaign this year. 

As political pressure mounts nationally and locally for police reform in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis law enforcement, Broome called out the Baton Rouge Union of Police, saying it has been an obstructive force in her efforts to weed out "bad cops" in Baton Rouge.

Her comments foreshadow the outsized role that questions about policing might play in the upcoming mayor's race.

The day after Broome's radio appearance, an opponent, Metro Councilman Matt Watson, released a statement that echoed the union's comments about Floyd's death, saying "a good officer's worst enemy is a bad officer" and promising to empower Baton Rouge's best cops.

Then Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who also announced her mayoral campaign Friday, cast the police union in a different light, highlighting how collaborative and transparent union members were during her series of public meetings surrounding police reform and community relations.

Wicker said union members "sat there with us and had deep conversations. People laughed, people cried and they cursed at one another … working through those tough conversations."

Some political pollsters say that, given national outrage against police after the Floyd killing, opposing police unions might not hurt candidates electorally. For example, local pollster John Couvillon thinks Broome's recent criticism will likely improve her chances at reelection.

"There was nothing particularly shocking about what she said. It was basically a build up of what she's been saying since as far back as 2016," said Couvillon, JMC Analytics and Polling. "I think what we have right now is widespread sympathy for George Floyd."

During an interview following her radio appearance, Broome doubled down on her earlier statements, describing additional problems she's encountered with the police union over the past four years. 

When she was vying for their support during her first campaign, she said, union representatives were most interested in grilling her about rumors she wanted to hire a black police chief "no matter what" if elected.

"I responded that I was going to hire the most qualified person," Broome said. "But them asking that question is a reflection of the mindset that exists there."

Chris Stewart, who was union president at the time, adamantly denied that the question was asked during the union's candidate evaluation process. Stewart added he's "damn certain we didn't say anything like that." 

Police reform became a central issue in Broome's 2016 campaign following the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling outside a Baton Rouge convenience store. Like Floyd's death, the incident was captured on video and shared widely on social media.

Sterling's death also sparked significant protests against police brutality. Then a lone gunman traveled to Baton Rouge from Kansas City and conducted a planned attack on law enforcement that killed three officers and wounded three more.

Broome was elected a few months later without the union's support. The organization endorsed two of her Republican opponents during the campaign: first, Metro Councilman John Delgado — who promised to hire an additional 200 police officers — then state Sen. Bodi White in the runoff.

The police union has a long history of endorsing candidates for public office, especially candidates for mayor, district attorney, some judges and Metro Council members. Before endorsing Broome's opponents, the organization had thrown its support behind Kip Holden, a Democrat who ousted a Republican incumbent and then served three terms as Baton Rouge's first ever black mayor. Holden helped get officers a substantial pay raise during his first term.

Once Broome got elected, union leadership accused her of excluding them from discussions about her plans for reform. Leaders said Broome had waltzed in and demanded a complete overhaul of the department without consulting the union, which represents the vast majority of officers.

She promised to conduct a national search and appoint a new chief, though that process proved messier than expected due to the state's civil service laws. But ultimately Broome pressured then-chief Carl Dabadie to retire and appointed Murphy Paul, a veteran of the Louisiana State Police and one of the few candidates from outside the department.

Sgt. Bryan Taylor, then president of the union, accused Broome of "changing something for the sake of changing."

Adding to the union's frustration is the fact that Baton Rouge officers are paid significantly less that other agencies — with starting salaries about 30 percent lower, according to a pay study commissioned by BRPD. Union leaders argue Broome hasn't done enough to bring them fair compensation despite having promised them a raise.

However, union leadership has recently expressed support for the reforms that have been implemented since 2016 and pledged to strengthen its relationship with Paul, who has sometimes butted heads with the organization.

Paul fired Blane Salamoni, the officer responsible for Sterling's death, not long after taking office in 2018. That decision upset the union, whose leadership consistently defended Salamoni's actions and accused the chief of "character assassination."

But, after publicly sparring in subsequent months, the chief's administration and the union appear to have reached some level of understanding.

When Broome called the union a force of obstruction, Paul avoided echoing her rhetoric. Though he referenced "some cultural issues" in the organization's past, he said he hopes to continue strengthening his administration's relationship with union leaders in the future and values their role. 

Union President Sgt. Brandon Blust said he shares that goal.

Blust disputed the mayor's remarks and said the union has fully supported the reforms implemented since 2017, which include body cameras, new use of force policies and more stringent rules governing the department's internal affairs division that investigates officer misconduct. He also said union leadership stands with protesters nationwide because the officers responsible for Floyd's death "gave every good cop across the country a bad name."

The union didn't respond to a recent request for comment on the mayor's race and a possible endorsement.

National law enforcement experts have praised the steps that Broome and Paul have taken to reform BRPD since the Sterling shooting, including the chief's decision to fire Salamoni and his subsequent apology to communities of color for past policing practices that he said have traumatized black residents.

Jim Bueermann, a policing consultant and former president of the nonprofit National Police Foundation, said this could prove a defining moment for police unions nationwide, including in Baton Rouge.

"It's in a union's best interest to divest themselves of members who are causing problems for everybody," he said. "That's a difficult position … but it's also an opportunity for union leadership to reframe their purpose and ultimately their relationship with the community."

As police reform remains at the forefront of American politics and start to factor into some local elections, Bueermann said, the role of police unions hangs in the balance.

"Some candidates won't want the union endorsement. For some, that's the worst possible thing to receive," he said. "If a union finds itself in that position, that sends a clear message to leaders that they need to rethink how to advance their members' cause."

Watson, a Republican, said he hasn't reached out directly for the union's support but noted many conversations he's had with individual officers who share in the recent outrage over police brutality and are open to reform. 

"I don't believe in creating more animosity between organizations that need to be working together," Watson said. "We have a lot of good officers that serve our community and are watching and reporting what they see."

But Watson added there is obviously room for improvement and better oversight. He said that if elected, he would create an administrative position focused on accountability measures for local law enforcement.

Wicker, a Democrat, is pushing for more dialogue between residents and local law enforcement. She said the tense relationship between Broome and union leadership is stunting the potential for productive change. 

Meanwhile, State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, a Democrat who's still considering throwing her hat in the race, thinks the city-parish's administration needs to take a much more holistic approach to police reform. She wants to extend transformative policies beyond just the Baton Rouge Police Department and into the local court system as well.

"We've got a problem with the whole structure," she said. "I agree with (Broome) in that I think the police union defended a lot of bad behavior they shouldn't have. There is a place for the union, but we need to figure out what they should actually be doing."


Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com