A coalition of religious and community leaders unveiled a report Tuesday indicating that poor and minority residents in Baton Rouge are disproportionately affected by heavy police enforcement of low-level drug laws, saddling residents with criminal records and contributing to strained relations between the police and some communities.
The report, compiled by Together Baton Rouge and released at a luncheon discussing the group's police reform push, shows far higher incidents of stops, citations and arrests for drug possession in poorer, largely black ZIP code areas of the city.
Together Baton Rouge's lead organizer, Broderick Bagert, said the group's report will help inform police reform discussions, which bubbled up during protests over the fatal police shooting of a black man on the city's north side in July.
So far, Bagert said to the crowd of about 200 people, talk of change at BRPD has been "mostly superficial and without evidence."
But Bagert said he hopes Together Baton Rouge's analysis of nonviolent drug incidents — more than half of which involved marijuana possession — might serve as a jumping-off point for an in-depth discussion of how to change policing in the city.
Together Baton Rouge's report, which analyzed publicly available police incident data from the last six years, indicated that rates of drug possession arrests or citations are more than 500 percent higher in four ZIP codes — 70807, 70811, 70805 and 70802 — than in much of the rest of the city, although the data indicates that gap is slowly closing. Those disparities, Bagert said, come despite national survey data which suggests relatively even rates of drug use across the city.
Those ZIP codes all sit in north Baton Rouge. Residents of those ZIP codes are, taken together, 90 percent black and generally far less wealthy than other parts of the city.
Rates of drug-related incidents correlated most strongly with rates of poverty and average education levels, the report found. Those rates are also tied to the racial makeup of different ZIP codes, though the relationship appears less strong. Indeed, Bagert said black residents also make up the majority in the three ZIP codes with the lowest level of drug possession incidents, 70814, 70810 and 70819.
The report, Bagert said, doesn't show "evidence of intentional, willful discrimination" by the police. But Bagert said the end result — that poor or black residents have a far higher chance of being popped for simple possession than wealthier, white residents — is still problematic.
Baton Rouge police officials said Tuesday the distribution of drug-related incidents also appeared to track closely with calls from residents to police and with rates of violent crime, though Lt. Jonny Dunnam, a BRPD spokesman, said the department hadn't yet fully reviewed the Together Baton Rouge report. Dunnam added that the data Together Baton Rouge drew on for the report includes incidents that don't end in an arrest and may not provide a complete picture of drug enforcement in the city.
Ed Shihadeh, an LSU criminologist who's worked closely with local authorities on several crime-fighting initiatives, said incidents involving drug possession appeared to track most closely with other indicators of crime in those areas: Calls from residents to police and violent crime.
Police department officials "make deployment decisions based on violence," Shihadeh said.
John Pierre, the chancellor of Southern University Law Center, said an overhaul of the state's drug laws — including slashing penalties for simple possession or decriminalizing marijuana — would free up police resources to focus on other crimes and ease a burden on poorer neighborhoods. Pierre was among several speakers Tuesday, along with Shihadeh and ACLU of Louisiana executive director Marjorie Esman, to tie the state's drug laws and marijuana possession to Louisiana's highest-in-the-nation incarceration rate.
How Tuesday's discussion might be distilled into specific policy remains an open question. Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, who prominently featured calls to reform the police department in her campaign and pledged to replace current Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr., hasn't yet unveiled specific policy changes at the agency or indicated how she intends to replace Dabadie, who's protected by civil service laws and hasn't announced his intention to step down.
Bagert said Together Baton Rouge is still pushing a police reform agenda the group rolled out during the mayor's race which called for, among other things, additional training for officers and an independent police monitor. He also said the coalition of faith leaders has also consulted with Broome on recommended changes to the department's use-of-force policy.
What the reform proposals and policy recommendations are will likely inform how tough of a battle Broome will face at the Metro Council and with the Baton Rouge Union of Police, which represents city officers.
Sgt. Bryan Taylor, the union president, spoke at Tuesday's gathering but didn't address the group's findings, saying he hadn't yet reviewed the report. Taylor spoke instead about his own upbringing and children, maintaining that building safer communities "starts in the home."
In past interviews, Taylor has indicated he's happy to work with Broome to improve the department — but has also argued that the mayor's calls for reform ignore much of the good work done by the city's officers.