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Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge 

Baton Rouge’s police chief, mayor and a handful of local lawmakers are asking the Louisiana Legislature to change the Baton Rouge Police Department’s system for promoting officers, which currently relies almost solely on seniority to decide which officers move up the ranks.

House Bill 438, would allow BRPD’s top brass to consider a range of qualifications while evaluating the five longest-serving officers for a vacancy or promotion. Under the current system, promotions to most posts within the department automatically go to the most senior officer who passed a qualifying exam for the rank, regardless of their exam score or accomplishments.

State lawmakers have to approve these proposed changes because that promotional system — which also applies to most other police departments in Louisiana — is spelled out by state civil service law. The tweaks in the bill, sponsored by state Rep. Ted James, would only apply to BRPD.

James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, crafted the legislation with the support of Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul and East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome.

"I think this a great bill you have, Rep. James," said Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, also a Baton Rouge Democrat, during a hearing on the measure Wednesday morning. "It allows the chief to look at a number of employees for promotion."

Lawmakers on the House Municipal, Parochial and Cultural Affairs Committee signed off on the bill without objection Wednesday morning, sending it to the House floor for debate.

But some union officials came out against the changes.

"This legislation does way too many things, it's way too problematic," said Chris Stewart, a former BRPD officer and past president of Baton Rouge Union of Police Local 237 who now represents the International Union of Police Associations, to which Local 237 belongs. "This is going to affect people's careers and livelihoods."

Stewart said he was also worried about the precedent it could set statewide for police and fire departments, which all operate under state civil service law to govern hiring and promotions.

Union officials from the AFL-CIO, the Fraternal Order of Police and a group representing firefighters also turned out in opposition to the changes but didn’t speak at the hearing.

But later in the day, Baton Rouge Union of Police President Sgt. Bryan Taylor clarified that the union does support, in theory, changes to improve promotional practices, like increasing competition and incentivizing quality work. Their concern comes over the specifics of this bill, as well as its speed moving forward.

“We are in favor of having dialogue in reference to doing something to the promotional system to where we can promote the most qualified candidate,” Taylor said in an interview with The Advocate Wednesday afternoon. “We all want the best supervisor. … (But) because it’s such a big change, we want buy in from all of our members. …I think this is a long-term process.”

Taylor said he would like to see the bill include safeguards for officers after a promotion, like an appeal system to protect against discrimination in promotions. 

"There's been no lengthy discussion," Taylor said. He said their meetings with BRPD top brass about the measure have not been detailed. 

James was shocked union representatives felt there weren't enough meetings. He said he and Paul have met and reached out for input multiple times, which even led to amendments adopted on Wednesday.

However, a representative from the Magnolia State Peace Officers Association, a statewide organization for black police officers, offered support for the measure.

“We are totally for the changes in the promotional process because over time we’ve seen a lack of a more professional promotional process that has caused our department to deteriorate," said Walter Griffin, a BRPD homicide detective and the first vice president for the Capital-area chapter of the Magnolia State Peace Officers.

Paul, the Baton Rouge Police chief, told The Advocate after the hearing that seniority would still be “heavily weighted with our system” but this tweak would help create a better-prepared, more professional department.

“Only getting promoted because of seniority is not the best way to promote and recognize the talent within your organization,” Paul said. “I don’t think there’s any business in America today ... that uses that type of promotional process.”

Broome called the changes “common sense” in a letter to lawmakers. Baton Rouge Councilman Lamont Cole told lawmakers that rank-and-file BRPD officers “suffer from a lack of development” because some supervisors are promoted into posts without being ready or willing to take on leadership responsibilities.

Civil service law was created to eliminate cronyism or favoritism in the promotional process for governmental jobs, but James and other critics of the current system have argued it allows poorly qualified or problematic cops to stay in the system and continue to be promoted, while slowing the careers of promising newer officers.

James has sponsored a few other bills in recent years trying to change aspects of civil service law to give Baton Rouge leaders more discretion in hiring and promotion of officers, but they’ve died in the state Legislature.

The change presented this session, if passed, could give the chief of police more opportunities to promote minorities and women, which could help the department move closer to being cleared of a decades-old federal consent decree. Paul has called lifting that consent decree a goal for his administration.

The consent decree has monitored, since 1980, how the department hires and promotes women and minorities. Recent data shows the agency is still far from representative of the city, with numbers even worse in the agency's higher ranks. Only 22 percent of those officers with a rank of sergeant or higher were black and only 5 percent were women, according to BRPD data sent to the Department of Justice last summer. The city's population is about half African-American.

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.