Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul buzzed briskly around the skeleton of a room on the second floor of the department’s headquarters on Airline Highway recently as he talked about his vision for a state-of-the-art “Real Time Crime Center.”

Two workstations here, he motioned toward an open space, with a landing for supervisors over there. And surrounding the hub for crime analysts will be screens, he said, gesturing toward a long, blank wall.

“The key to the Real Time Crime Center is the analytical support that it’s going to provide,” Paul said.

Getting all the data the department compiles into the hands of analysts at a central location will allow them “to analyze it and push that information back out to the boots on the ground,” Paul said.

The technology center is Paul’s latest initiative, set to bring the city’s law enforcement agency, along with parishwide partners, further in line with 21st-century policing.

He said he hopes to expand the center’s capabilities by having residents and local businesses register their security cameras with the department, giving investigators and analysts quick knowledge about where cameras exist and if they can help solve crime.

“It’s all about community engagement,” Paul said. “I think if we do it right ... people will be excited about it, and they feel like they’re taking ownership and being part of the solution.”

The project embodies two central points Paul has emphasized throughout his first year leading the Police Department: technology and community. In both arenas, Paul has brought tangible changes to the department. He said he's confident the improvements will continue to positively affect his officers’ jobs and the city’s public safety.

Despite taking over a police agency in early 2018 still embroiled with controversy and negative perceptions — most notably from the lingering 2016 police shooting of Alton Sterling — Paul has been able to win support from the community through his policies, decisions and visibility.

This year, however, will test the positive foundation Paul has set, especially whether he can secure the pay raise he’s been lobbying for his officers and whether the city will continue to record a declining homicide and violent crime rate.

“The citizens like his responsiveness, his engagement … and believe in his ability to lead the BRPD,” said East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, who hired Paul in late 2017 after a decadeslong career at Louisiana State Police. “I believe that his impact will continue to grow, in the department and in the community.”

‘Changing perceptions’

From his inauguration speech in January 2018 to his most recent December news conference on crime rates, Paul has repeatedly stressed the need for community support of the Police Department, and that narrative also has been pushed within his officer corps.

He said he sees changing the community’s perceptions of the department as his biggest accomplishment since taking over as chief.

“Changing perceptions on how the community sees the police officers that are out there to serve and protect but also how we see the community that we serve ... it’s important to change both of those,” Paul said in an interview.

Paul said there’s anecdotal evidence indicating the department is getting more cooperation from the community in solving crimes, with more people willing to work with detectives and to call Crimestoppers to share tips. Paul said he wants to build on that in 2019, when he plans to partner with some families of homicide victims to encourage more residents to come forward with information about crimes or potential crimes.

“I think Chief Paul has done a real good job with breaking down some of the barriers that existed between the Police Department and the community,” said the Rev. Dale Flowers, pastor of New Sunlight Baptist Church. “There has certainly been a shift in a positive direction, toward better relations. Of course there’s lots of work to be done, (but) we are nowhere near where we were a year and a half ago, a year ago, before he started on the job.”

Flowers is among Baton Rouge residents who were glad to see how Paul disciplined the two officers involved in killing Sterling, a task that fell to him after Attorney General Jeff Landry declined to bring criminal charges against the officers.

Paul fired Officer Blane Salamoni, who shot and killed Sterling, and suspended Officer Howie Lake, who responded with Salamoni to the call about an armed man at a convenience store in early July 2016. Sterling was killed during a brief struggle with the officers at the store and was found to have a gun in his pants pocket.

Flowers said he was also glad that Paul fired Officer Yuseff Hamadeh, whose story about why he shot at a fleeing motorist in August conflicted with other evidence from the encounter. No one was injured, but the officer’s account of the shooting left a 21-year-old man in jail for weeks on a count of attempted murder of a police officer until evidence surfaced that contradicted Hamadeh’s account.

Paul said he knows the Police Department still has a long way to go in gaining the community’s trust but is working toward that end.

He cited a new online system where residents can complain about, or praise, their encounters with police. He also pointed to an improved body camera policy that allows for quicker release of footage after a critical incident, at the chief’s discretion.

In the first year, the online system received 57 commendations and 44 complaints, a police spokesman said. The body camera policy, meanwhile, is more in line with national best practices, although it was not fully utilized in two cases that drew media attention at the end of 2018, including the one involving Hamadeh.

Paul said he will continue his part in changing interactions, planning improved and increased training for officers, and finding ways to be more transparent, wherever possible. But, he said, decreasing crime in Baton Rouge will take a combined effort.

“We need more help from the community,” Paul said.

Real Time Crime Center

Paul said he expects his pet project, which has won support from Broome, parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III and Sheriff Sid Gautreaux, will be up and running in 2019, hopefully by the summer. It will include seats for the department's own analysts, as well as those from partner law enforcement agencies in the parish, including the Zachary and Baker police departments, and LSU and Southern University police.

Paul said in the average of five minutes that officers drive to respond to a call, analysts in the center will be able to pull information about the address, including any pertinent warrants or previous incidents, and share that with the officer.

“You can provide data, information to that responding officer so he can make a better informed decision and take more of a problem-solving approach to de-escalate that situation,” Paul said.

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A new computer system will weave together and display the technology parish law enforcement agencies already use, like ShotSpotter, license plate readers and crime cameras, and make them communicate, said Sgt. Jim Verlander, who is overseeing the Real Time Crime Center. While Paul hopes they will also expand that technology, he said they will work with the funding as they get it.

“It’s kind of a piecemeal approach. We’re using a combination of grant dollars, existing dollars in our budget,” Paul said, noting that an officer who is also a licensed contractor has begun the physical building of the center. “We don’t like waiting.”

With the community camera registration program, the Real Time Crime Center will integrate video feeds from neighborhood crime districts and businesses that give permission. It will also map where other cameras at personal residences are located for when residents don’t want to share their feed but would be agreeable to sharing footage pertinent to a specific investigation.

Paul said some of the video technology will quickly scan through hours of footage and also pinpoint which cameras could be helpful to an investigation, a task that has previously taken detectives hours.

“With technology, we can do more with less,” Paul said. “Technology can help leverage the shortages we have in the Police Department.”

Saving money and manpower

After Paul came into the department, he reviewed many of the day-to-day practices, trying to find areas to increase efficiencies, realizing that the effort could save money and help ease the jobs of an officer corps that is stretched thin.

Paul said he wants the department to run as efficiently as possible as he awaits the final report from the officer pay study, which has estimated it will cost about $20 million a year to pay Baton Rouge officers on par with peer agencies. 

In October, Paul helped change the way uniform patrol officers transport suspects to the Parish Prison for booking, a process that can take more than two hours. With Uniform Patrol Commander Capt. Kevin Newman, they brought back a prisoner processing transport unit that takes over the booking part of prison processing from street officers after paperwork is complete — so those officers can get back on the street more quickly.

“We’re saving an awful amount of money and manpower,” Newman said.

He said the uniform patrol officers will take only about 45 minutes to do the front end of prison processing, while a small team consolidates the back end, like the drive to Parish Prison and waiting at booking, saving about an hour, on average, of patrol time or officer backup.

“It allows us to go back out in the field much quicker,” said Cpl. Daryl Armstead, who’s served in uniform patrol for 10 years. “It helps out with officer safety. It’s just simple. It should have been like this.”

Paul said he hopes to restructure the police districts to even out the workload early this year and move some officers from administrative roles back to the street.

He said he hopes these changes, among others, will make it easier to secure what he says is a much-needed pay raise for his officers. And if he’s successful in that venture, it would mean a big win for him among his officer corps, especially the police union, which has not wholly embraced him in the same way he’s been embraced by the community.

“He has been visionary in where he wants to take the department,” said the Rev. Lee Wesley, of Community Bible Baptist Church. “As long as progress is being made and we can see that progress, we’re willing to work with the chief.”

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.