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Candiates for the office of East Baton Rouge Mayor-President, seated in semi-circle from left, Sharon Weston Broome, Steve Carter, Jordan Piazza , E Eric Guirard, and Matt Watson get ready to participate in a forum hosted by The Advocate and Louisiana Public Broadcasting, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020 at LPB. Candidate Denise Marcelle had not yet arrived.

The national debate around police reform has become a hot topic in this year's Baton Rouge mayoral race, where the crowded field of candidates share many ideas about how law enforcement might be changed in the current political climate. 

There's disagreement, however, on how the city's police department should look and operate after next month's election.

Each of the candidates promise pay increases for Baton Rouge police officers, who are some of the lowest paid in the metro area. And to varying degrees they generally agree that recent widespread protests, both locally and nationally, against police brutality is an indication that new polices and procedures are needed.

Some of the candidates want to bring about change from the top down, meaning, essentially, possibly seeking to replace the police department's current chief Murphy Paul, a noted hire of incumbent Sharon Weston Broome. 

Broome is seeking a second term. In the Nov. 3 primary, she'll face six challengers: Metro Councilman Matt Watson, former state Rep. Steve Carter, local businessman Jordan Piazza and political newcomer Frank Smith, all Republicans; state Rep. Denise Marcelle, a Democrat; and Baton Rouge attorney E Eric Guirard, an independent. 

Broome, a Democrat, has cast her first four years as the city-parish's top official as a transformative shift in police reform, spearheading policy changes ahead of the national conversations happening now about police reform. 

She entered office shortly after local unrest ignited in 2016 following the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling outside a Baton Rouge convenience store. 

After keeping her controversial campaign promise to hire a new police chief, the city-parish implemented new use-of-force and de-escalation policies, banned chokeholds, and purchased body cameras. 

"My goal has always been 21st Century policing," she said. "We've moved the needle in terms of building trust (but) it's an ongoing process."

In her second term, Broome says she intends to use $2.5 million in federal CARES Act funding to provide mentorship opportunities, connecting residents to public benefits and improving youth programming in the city-parish. She believes she can address community ills to battle a spike in the parish's crime rate, which she has previously blamed on the coronavirus pandemic. 

More than 80 people have been killed in homicides so far this year across the parish, already hitting last year's total, according to unofficial records maintained by The Advocate.

Broome said training and additional educational initiatives are an "ongoing process" for the police department, noting that she has implemented wellness checks for officers given the high pressure and mental strains the job can have. 

Finally, she said, long-sought after pay raises will be included in her proposed budget for next year — which has become a sticking point for her challengers who have said the department's disappointing pay is partly to blame for current staffing shortfalls.

Baton Rouge police officers currently make $33,968 annually once they've graduated from academy and have spent six months on the job. The East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office pays $38,153 to start, while Louisiana State Police make $49,448 a year after completing field officer training. 

Broome tried to downplay assertions that the police department is short-staffed. 

"We had an efficiency study done and the management consultants who did it said for a city of our size, we have enough officers," she said. "The issue is the allocation of those officers. Some reorganization needs to take place to maximize the use of individuals in our department."  

Watson asserts the city's police department is short about 100 officers. And as the city-parish has grown, he says the shortfall has made it difficult to get the volume of officers needed to respond to calls and help de-escalate some situations. 

Watson has said previously he intends to create a new assistant chief administrative officer in the Mayor's Office focused on public safety to provide oversight of law enforcement and communicate directly with communities affected most by violence.

While some of the other candidates praise Paul for the job he's done so far, Watson criticized the head of the police department for his lack of transparency when it comes to information he's asked for. He stops short of implying whether he would keep Paul on as chief if elected. 

He said many officers love the community, but that "the morale of the police department is at a historical low. You've got officers who don't feel like they can do their duty," he said. "When I'm elected, I will meet with all the different shifts to let them know they have my support. At the same time, anyone acting in an unprofessional way ... does nothing but make the police force look worse than it actually is. I wouldn't put up with that."

Carter has his mind set on reinstituting the city-parish's defunct Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination, more commonly known as BRAVE, program. 

The BRAVE program was credited as a successful tool that helped reduce crime after being implemented in late 2012. The federally funded initiative targeted young gang members involved in crime, also using intelligence about who were the most likely offenders.

But the U.S. Department of Justice refused to extend the program in 2017 because of troubles with administration of the grant money and program data showed it served fewer young people than had originally been envisioned. 

"I've talked to (the District Attorney) and he thinks we need to find the funding to bring BRAVE back," Carter said. 

As Baton Rouge police officer numbers plummet, the agency tries new recruiting efforts

He also wants to improve the community's trust of the police department, and thinks the way to do that is through education and training, especially in regards to race relations. Carter believes creating more jobs in the parish will curb crime and wants to invest more in community-driven programs targeting mental health and drug rehabilitation. 

Carter says he's been "impressed" by Paul in the past, but would entertain the prospect of replacing him should his views not line up with Carter's vision for the police department. 

"I'm open to whatever it takes to get the morale up in the department," he said. "If he is the guy, great. But if he's not, we'll move on."

Marcelle says she plans to implement a "true community policing" measure that would actually require officers to get out of their cars and get to know the communities they serve rather than only doing it during city-parish sponsored events a few times a year. 

She also wants to create an incentive program to encourage more Baton Rouge officers to live within the city limits and lobby for more federal grant dollars to help supplement the costs of creating more laser-focused crime prevention initiatives. 

"I don't want to defund the police — I think that's the wrong term anyway," she said. "The better term is utilizing funding differently, allocating more toward mental health and homelessness."

She's also willing to meet with the current police chief who she said would be "highly considered" to continue on as the department's head should she be elected.  

"I think he had a tough job to do when he came in and he's done an OK job with the cards he was dealt," she said. "I want to talk to him and see if we are on the same page on moving the department forward."

Piazza doesn't feel Broome has given Paul the support he needs to adequately address crime in the city but he still commends him on the work he's done thus far. 

"I'm not running on a platform to say I will replace the chief," he said. "Voters need to know whoever the mayor-president is will work effectively with the leaders from different departments. Until I get in there and take a look at the department, there are a lot of unknowns."

Guirard has offered up the most transformative facelift for law enforcement in the city-parish if elected. He’d like to merge the Baton Rouge Police Department with the Sheriff's Office to create martial-arts trained "community police on steroids," which he plans to call the "Guardian Rouge."

In addition to the pay increases all the candidates are promising, Guirard also wants to offer bonuses to Baton Rouge officers that live inside the city. 

"The goal is for them to have a better relationship with all the people in the parish," he said. "They'll be our guardians; not just police and cops."


Email Terry Jones at tjones@theadvocate.com