Black people in Baton Rouge are about six times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, according to a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that cites 2016 crime data to show the possible impacts of racial profiling on arrest rates across Louisiana.
The report repeatedly points to the Baton Rouge Police Department as an example of what not to do — arguing that the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling in 2016 "highlighted decades long tensions in Louisiana's capital over police treatment of … African Americans" and concluding that the department "has consistently overpoliced the city's black community."
Police department officials said they met with representatives from the organization on Monday to discuss the report's findings, but defended their policies and procedures. They said the department's leaders are open to criticism and "willing to work with anyone who feels there are issues surrounding racial profiling or anything else."
Researchers for the Southern Poverty Law Center — an organization with a long history of civil rights advocacy — analyzed 2016 FBI crime data, which law enforcement agencies are required to submit to federal officials on an annual basis.
In addition to marijuana possession, the report points to Baton Rouge noise ordinance enforcement data, which shows that "the vast majority of these stops took place in predominantly black neighborhoods, raising concerns that officers may be using this ordinance to make pretextual stops of black motorists."
Baton Rouge police spokesman Sgt. L'Jean McKneely Jr. said it's important for people to take a broader look at the issues documented in the report and avoid making unfair judgments based on the numbers alone.
McKneely said the department allocates its resources depending on the volume of service calls and frequency of violent crime in certain areas of the city — using data to determine where police presence is most needed to protect Baton Rouge residents and reduce crime.
He said the unfortunate reality is that crime often plagues majority black neighborhoods. And if officers suspect illegal activity is taking place, they can't just turn their backs or refuse to respond to 911 calls.
McKneely also noted that officers are not throwing people in jail for marijuana possession or loud music; they're issuing a misdemeanor summons, which requires the recipient to show up in court at a later date.
All Baton Rouge police officers complete implicit bias training during academy and then receive refresher courses as professional development later on.
An implicit-bias police training implemented by the U.S. Department of Justice as well as countless law enforcement agencies across the countr…
The SPLC report also highlights what it describes as a failure among law enforcement agencies across the state to adequately address the issue of racial bias in their policies and procedures. More than one third of agencies "lack any policy on racial profiling. And the policies that do exist usually fail to explain clearly to officers what racial profiling is and what conduct is prohibited."
Researchers reviewed the policies of more than 300 law enforcement agencies across the state and — in the cases where a policy addressing racial profiling did exist — determined whether the "prohibition is broad enough." The report's authors concluded that the Baton Rouge Police Department's policy is adequate.
They also found that the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office operates under a policy that is not broad enough because it fails to address two main concerns — "the use of race to form unreasonable suspicion and racially selective enforcement of traffic and pedestrian laws." The Sheriff's Office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The practice of pulling people over or stopping them based on their skin color creates a culture where residents don't trust the police, said Paul Guidry, a criminal justice professor at Baton Rouge Community College.
Guidry has been involved in ongoing efforts to improve community police relations in Baton Rouge following the killing of Alton Sterling and subsequent ambush on law enforcement that killed three officers and wounded three others.
Guidry said information like the data released in the report naturally makes people more wary about their interactions with officers, especially members of the African American community.
He acknowledged the importance of having officers patrolling in high crime areas but said the solution lies in finding a balance between having an adequate presence without "over policing." That often comes down to the discretion of individual officers and their approach to the job.
Guidry said he believes the Baton Rouge community has already made some progress toward bridging the gap between law enforcement and the public. But the report suggests there's still significant room for improvement.
"At end of the day we're still kind of at the starting line, and this report does not do us any justice," he said. "But I think we can take this as constructive criticism — use it as an opportunity to think about how we can move forward from this and continue to make progress."