Four decades ago, the U.S. Justice Department issued an unequivocal warning to some three dozen Louisiana cities: Diversify your police and fire departments or risk losing federal funding.
The edict, delivered during a closed-door meeting, followed a civil-rights investigation that found a pattern of discriminatory hiring practices from New Iberia to Monroe, and it resulted in a sweeping court settlement intended to shatter the glass ceilings of the state's law enforcement community, which had been dominated by white males since its inception.
The settlement, known as a federal consent decree, contained an ambitious affirmative action plan designed to make Louisiana's police and fire departments look more like the communities they serve. Among the signatories was Baton Rouge, a city that did not pin its first badge on a black police officer until 1963.
"All we have to do is make an honest effort," a city-parish official told reporters after a federal appeals court upheld the consent decree in 1980. "We're already doing the best we can."
After a contentious start to the proceedings — the mayor of Abbeville publicly accused the feds of "blackmail" — the case faded into relative obscurity.
Nearly 37 years later, almost all of the cities involved have been dismissed from the litigation. Earlier this month, the Justice Department filed court papers releasing Covington, Harahan and West Monroe from the consent decree, praising those jurisdictions for overhauling their hiring and promotion processes.
Government lawyers vowed to "continue to work with the remaining municipalities" — Alexandria and Baton Rouge — which still have not met the mark.
Indeed, in a city that is about 55 percent black, the Baton Rouge Police Department remains 67 percent white, despite recruiting efforts that have intensified over the past few years. The gaping disparity makes the agency one of the least representative big-city departments in the country.
"No one would like to get this consent decree lifted more than us," Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie said in an interview. "With everything we've been through the past 10 months, I think it's very critical. We're under the microscope and being looked at in every aspect of what we do."
While the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling last summer did not result in civil-rights charges against the officers involved in his death, it prompted a host of reforms aimed at restoring the community's trust in the Police Department, from a new use-of-force policy to the implementation of body-worn cameras.
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As debate continues in the Capital City on whether those changes went far enough, the 1980 consent decree has garnered new attention. Largely forgotten for decades, the settlement has taken on new relevance in a community riven by racial conflict in the months following the Sterling shooting and the subsequent slayings of three law enforcement officers.
A local group of black pastors recently urged U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to "revive" the long-dormant agreement, blaming the BRPD's demographic imbalance for "the apparent hostility and tension between law enforcement officers and the African-American community."
Fresh intervention from the Justice Department could "quell" this enmity, said the Rev. Gerard Robinson Sr., who mailed the letter on behalf of the Coalition of African American Pastors for Justice.
In an interview, Robinson said he was encouraged by the recent activity in the consent decree proceedings, the first under Sessions, who has been vocally skeptical of federally supervised police reform.
"People need to know that officers who are on the street understand their culture and that they understand what their community is experiencing at large," he said. A diverse police department, he added, "creates an atmosphere of trust. It creates an atmosphere of awareness."
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A number of racially tinged scandals have set back the BRPD in recent years in its relationship with the black community, including some involving officer misconduct. More than a decade before Sterling's death, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Baton Rouge police faced a series of complaints, lodged by out-of-state troopers who came to Louisiana to help after the storm, that officers were repeatedly harassing and assaulting black people. Some of those visiting lawmen said they had been given orders upon arriving to make life difficult for displaced New Orleanians.
The consent decree had become something of a relic in Baton Rouge until a few years ago, with even some elected leaders and police officers unaware of its existence.
It was thrust to the fore in 2013 during the contentious firing of Police Chief Dewayne White, who in airing a host of grievances revealed that the Justice Department had "expressed grave concern that the Police Department still is not doing enough to recruit and hire black persons and females."
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The consent decree stemmed from an aggressive civil rights campaign and related litigation that began in Louisiana in the early 1970s. White men made up about 83 percent of the BRPD when the Justice Department began its investigation. By 1980, the year the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the consent decree, Baton Rouge's population was only about 28 percent black.
The proceedings rankled public officials around the state, who resented affirmative action generally and denied discriminating against black people and women seeking to joining police and fire departments. The case named as defendants most of the state's major cities, except New Orleans, which was not a part of the litigation.
The Morning Advocate's editorial board derided the Justice Department's civil complaint as a "charade," siding with a federal judge in New Orleans, Jack Gordon, who initially refused to sign the agreement on the basis that it would discriminate against white males. "Qualification of applicants should be the first concern of the fire and police departments, not the race or the sex of a particular applicant," the newspaper told readers.
The federal government accused the Louisiana cities of using "entry-level and promotional examinations and other selection processes that had an adverse impact on blacks and women and were not shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity," according to court filings.
The consent decree prohibited the municipalities from discriminating on the grounds of race or sex, and it spelled out a series of guidelines that called for hiring an equal number of white and black police and fire recruits. It required the departments to jettison titles like "policeman" or "fireman" in favor of gender-neutral terms such as "police officer and "firefighter."
As a long-term goal, the departments were to try to hire a force that represented the proportion of black people and women in the local labor force, subject to the availability of qualified applicants. The cities agreed to review their officer selection processes and recruitment efforts, with an eye toward eliminating discrimination.
It's unclear exactly what benchmarks the cities had to meet to be released from the consent decree, but city-parish officials have said their aim is to bring the agency's demographics in line with the population of the city. "We have to do better," Dabadie said.
The road to compliance included regular submissions of paperwork to the Justice Department, which seemed indifferent at times to the cities' progress, or lack thereof.
"This has been a cumbersome issue for us, just keeping up with the documentation and reporting requirements," Tim Lentz, the Covington police chief, said last week. "We had been more than compliant for years."
In Baton Rouge, city-parish officials interpreted the consent decree as a series of goals rather than strict quotas. Dabadie, the police chief, said he is not aware of the city ever being sanctioned for noncompliance.
Nine jurisdictions were released from the litigation between 1980 and 2004. Another 20 cities and parishes — including Lake Charles, Monroe and Shreveport — were found to have substantially complied with the agreement and so were released from it in late 2012. But Baton Rouge was not among them.
Dabadie said the department's recruitment efforts have been frustrated by an antiquated civil service system that requires officers to work between 15 to 18 years to reach a supervisory position. The result is that it's difficult to retain new recruits, regardless of their race, as they're easily lured to better-paying jobs in agencies like the State Police. The officers who do stay longer are older and tend to be white, he said.
"Our promotional system is based on seniority," Dabadie said. "And this is a generation that expects instant gratification."
Nevertheless, the police chief pointed to a number of positive signs of progress. Some of the department's most recent training academy classes have had more minority recruits than white. One of them, which began in October 2015, had 11 black graduates and five white ones.
"We've worked very hard," Dabadie said. "In 2016 alone, we had 56 job fairs."
Robinson, who is pastor of McKowen Missionary Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, lauded Dabadie's efforts, saying, "He's doing the best job that he can given what he has to work with." But he cautioned against complacency after the recent reforms introduced by Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.
"One of the biggest problems in our community is that people are seeing us talk but not seeing any benefits from it yet," he said.
Dabadie disputed the suggestion that racial disparities have produced an "us-versus-them" mentality in some of the city's predominantly black neighborhoods.
"We have a lot of good policemen here that go into these neighborhoods and talk to people, and it doesn't matter whether they're white or black," the chief said. "Of course, citizens would like to see a department that reflects the community, but when they need the police, I don't think it matters to them whether the officer is black or white but whether they do a professional job.
"I think we're doing that."