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A billboard put up by the Baton Rouge Police Union is seen August 12, 2020 within eyeshot of Baton Rouge Police headquarters on Airline Highway.

In the latest sign of strife between Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul and BRPD union leadership, the chief recently broke from tradition when he announced the department would be unable to spare an officer to represent the union before state lawmakers during the upcoming legislative session. 

The move represents another attempt to curb the power of union leadership amid an ongoing public feud that both sides have escalated in recent months.

Just this week, the Baton Rouge NAACP, which has offered outspoken support for Paul, called on the mayor to cancel the union contract completely and send a message to union leaders after they launched a billboard campaign criticizing the chief and his administration.

The current contract with the union includes a clause permitting it to send one or two officers to the statehouse each legislative session — a privilege aimed at elevating the voices of rank and file officers — unless it would cause "undue hardship" to the department. Paul cited that hardship exemption when notifying union leadership about his decision, saying that ongoing manpower shortages and crime trends are too burdensome, according to union Vice President Siya Creel.

"To my knowledge, this is the first time any chief has ever denied the request," Creel said. "We're very concerned about our officers not having representation."

But BRPD spokesman Sgt. L'Jean McKneely Jr. said there have been other instances when the department needed all hands on deck and declined similar requests. He said that, between rising gun violence and staffing challenges, "every officer is vital to the safety of our community."

Creel acknowledged those challenges but said the upcoming session, which starts April 12, is especially significant from a law enforcement perspective. Police reform promises to become a central issue, partly in response to the widespread protests following the killing of George Floyd, who died while pinned under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer last summer.

For example, Louisiana lawmakers are set to consider proposed legislation that would limit the use of qualified immunity that shields officers from legal ramifications in some cases where a cop causes severe injury or death. Officers whose actions are deemed unreasonable could more easily be held legally responsible if the legislation passes.

Creel said BRPD union leaders are concerned about the limits to qualified immunity but would likely support other police reform measures. The department itself already bans chokeholds and other potentially harmful forms of restraint.

The Legislature created a task force last year to study police reform in advance of the 2021 session. The group includes state lawmakers and representatives from the Louisiana Fraternal Order of Police, law professors, defense attorneys, prosecutors and police chiefs.

This is not the first time Paul has butted heads with union leaders over the BRPD legislative lobbying assignment. In 2019, the Legislature was considering a bill specific to the Baton Rouge Police Department that would tweak the promotional process, allowing the chief more discretion to decide whom to promote, rather than relying almost solely on seniority. Paul was backing the bill, which union leaders opposed. 

Partway through the 2019 session, Paul reprimanded the officer assigned to the Legislature and pulled him from the role, claiming he skipped a meeting to discuss the proposal and failed to submit weekly progress reports about his work. The bill ultimately passed.

Last year the department did send an officer to the Legislature, but session ended early during the pandemic.

Since then, tensions between Paul and union leaders have continued to escalate — in recent court hearings, before the Metro Council and even on billboards overlooking Baton Rouge interstates.

Creel, the union vice president, has been at the center of some recent battles since Paul fired him in December for doing an interview with a former Baton Rouge television reporter about the union's billboard campaign, which has been critical of the chief. Creel has sued the department, claiming his free speech rights were violated and pointing out that union leaders have previously been allowed free rein to give media interviews discussing union business, including under Paul.

Creel argued his termination was retaliatory and appealed the discipline before the local civil service board. Both cases are ongoing.

Creel could ultimately win back his job, but for now he has some free time, which he plans to spend at the Capitol during session. He will monitor the police reform bills without formally representing the BRPD union. 

Former BRPD Union President Chris Stewart, who works for the International Union of Police Associations, will also be there on behalf of his organization. 

Stewart said he couldn't recall a time during his decades at BRPD when the chief forbade sending an officer to the statehouse.

"I never thought we would face a situation where the chief would just say no,"

He argues that the "undue hardship" language in the contract was meant for emergencies such as natural disasters. 

Contract negotiations are ongoing between city officials and the union, so that language could change before a new contract is signed. The negotiations have been creeping along for years, often stalling with discussions of low pay. But officials are hoping to reach an agreement soon after the Metro Council recently approved two raises for BRPD officers. 

In the meantime, the union could use their own funds to hire an outside lobbyist. Union leadership declined to comment on whether the organization is seriously considering that option.

After months of infighting and public spats, Creel said union leaders want to work with the chief and his administration, maybe sit down and reaffirm their common goals — including holding officers accountable when they engage in misconduct. 

"Being at odds like this, it's not good for the department or the city," he said. "We just don't want to feud anymore."

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