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The Baton Rouge Police Department's longstanding manpower shortage has worsened over the past several months. And a recent decision to further postpone the next academy for new officers means the issue will persist into 2019, though department leaders are optimistic their ongoing efforts will soon translate into a larger police force.

Officials had planned to hold two basic training academies in 2018 — for new recruits with no prior law enforcement experience — but only one ended up happening. It started in January 2018 and ended in June when 29 graduates joined the force.

Department administrators have said resignations and retirements throughout the year have left them in dire need for another influx of manpower. 

But the second academy slotted for 2018 was pushed back to January 2019, then delayed again until March so the staff in charge of teaching recruits can first complete some training of their own: a "procedural justice" program that focuses on more effective ways of interacting with the public. The aim is to build more trust between police and the community.

Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said the program, which is being held this week in two California cities, is worth the delay because it presents an opportunity to "make sure everyone who works in the academy understands where we're going as an agency."

Paul has emphasized the importance of professionalism and transparency within the department since taking office last January.

Department leaders say they hope to hold two academies this year to make up for the schedule change. They're also devoting more resources to recruiting.

Staffing numbers

The Baton Rouge police force is currently more than 10 percent smaller than it should be. The department receives an allotment of 698 officers but only 625 of those positions are filled, leaving 73 vacancies — a notable increase over previous years. 

Staffing numbers also show that recent efforts to recruit and train more officers haven't been able to overcome retirements and resignations. Last year saw 34 officers join the department while 51 either retired or resigned, leaving the agency with a net loss of 17 officers. 

The agency started 2018 with 63 vacancies, which had grown from 39 at the beginning of 2017, according to staffing numbers recorded on Jan. 1 of each year. The East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office has also run into similar staffing problems in recent years.

Law enforcement administrators have long complained of manpower shortages that have persisted over the past several years, becoming especially problematic as homicides and other violent crime rose to historic levels across the parish in 2017.

Although the second academy that had been planned for 2018 never happened, the department did host training for incoming officers who had already earned their Peace Officer's Standards and Training certification and had some past law enforcement experience.

Deputy Police Chief Jonny Dunnam said recruiting those experienced members benefits the force. 

He also said the 2019 budget includes funding for two academies this year — one for 35 officers and another for 25. The first is now scheduled to start in March and will last 22 weeks.

Procedural justice

The chief's decision to send academy staff to procedural justice training means the force will maintain its current manpower deficit for a few more months. 

The department's 10 academy staff members traveled to California over the weekend to participate in the training, which is funded through a Collective Healing grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant was awarded to help Baton Rouge recover from the events of summer 2016: the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling and subsequent ambush on law enforcement that killed three officers and wounded three others. 

Dunnam said procedural justice focuses on making sure officers are treating people with respect during their interactions with suspects, for example explaining their actions and avoiding outward displays of judgment or bias. 

"People respond better when they're treated respectfully," Dunnam said. "Then the public has a perception that the department is legitimate and if they perceive you that way, when you show up at a scene, they're more likely to comply." 

Dunnam said outfitting all officers with body cameras has also encouraged more peaceful and respectful encounters with the public because both sides are aware their actions are being recorded. He credits that mutual respect with contributing to a significant decrease in officers' use of force during 2018.

Myron Daniels, the department's head of internal affairs, said use of force reports dropped almost 20 percent from 2017 to 2018.

Attracting more officers

Now entering his second year as chief, Paul is taking steps to boost the department's recruitment efforts, which have been hampered in part by the lower pay for Baton Rouge police when compared to their counterparts.

Department leaders say they hope to finally obtain a long overdue pay raise for officers, especially higher starting salary, which remains about 30 percent below other agencies of similar size and jurisdiction, according to the preliminary results of an ongoing pay study.

Baton Rouge police officers currently make $33,968 once they've graduated from academy and have spent six months on the job. Their counterparts at the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office are paid starting salaries of $38,153, while Louisiana State Police make $49,448 a year after completing field officer training. Entry level New Orleans police officers make $46,900 a year. 

Improvements on the recruitment front could help the department meet the terms of a federal consent decree imposed in 1980 to make law enforcement agencies more diverse through oversight of their hiring and promotion practices. Baton Rouge is one of the last Louisiana cities still struggling to meet those requirements.

Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.