The Baton Rouge Police Department remains far from reflecting the racial makeup of the city its officers serve, despite decades of federal oversight of the department's hiring and promotion practices.
About 55 percent of residents of Louisiana's capital city are black, but only about 33 percent of BRPD officers are black, according to the city's most recent report to the U.S. Department of Justice. And of the 643 officers employed by BRPD, only about 9 percent are women. The majority of officers are white men, the statistics show.
Baton Rouge is one of the last Louisiana cities still under a 1980 federal consent decree intended to decrease discrimination against black and women applicants and to increase their opportunity to be hired and promoted in police and fire departments.
The original consent decree spanned the state, including almost 40 municipalities from Shreveport to Sulphur, Bastrop to Harahan. But in the last decades the vast majority of those cities have been released from the decree, some as early as 1998 and most in 2012.
When Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul first took helm of the city's police force — a department still struggling to build trust with the black community following the officer shooting of Alton Sterling — he vowed that addressing the consent decree would be one of his top priorities.
“We need to get that cloud out from over our head and we’re going to work with them to get out from under that consent decree so we can move forward as an agency,” Paul said in January after he was sworn in as chief. However, after more than six months into the job, Paul declined to comment on how he plans to get the department released from federal oversight.
A spokeswoman for East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said the city submitted paperwork including the most recent breakdown of BRPD officers' diversity to the Justice Department just this month. She said it would be premature to discuss the city's progress before hearing back.
The paperwork the city submitted to federal authorities includes numbers from BRPD's recent police academies, breaking down the recruitment figures for the 84th Basic Academy, which graduated 29 officers in June. After five dropped out, the academy's graduates still included more than half minorities, with one Hispanic and 14 black officers. Four were female.
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The terms of the 1980 consent decree recommended that new police academies include 50 percent black qualified candidates and 25 percent qualified women. This latest academy almost met that mark for black candidates but fell much shorter for women — following a trend for the last few years of police academies, records show.
In the previous six academies from 2012 through 2017, four started with at least 50 percent black candidates, and none had more than 20 percent women candidates, city records show.
Retired BRPD Capt. Alvin Mack, one of the first black officers hired in 1968, said he remembers in the 1980s when the department first started addressing the consent decree.
"We started adjusting some of the hiring practices, and the focus was really on recruiting more minorities to reflect the minority populations," Mack said. Mack said he had led the department's initiative to recruit statewide, expanding beyond the Baton Rouge area, and sought better connections with two- and four-year colleges. He said they also changed elements of the written and physical assessments that were hampering recruitment efforts.
But looking at where the department is today, decades later and still with 65 percent white officers, Mack said he thinks more could be done.
"This is 2018, ...and we haven’t grown much," Mack said. "I would say (the numbers) are shocking."
In 1980, BRPD was only about 9 percent black, according to Advocate records, but by 1985 that proportion had doubled to 18 percent. However more than 30 years later, the department has not doubled that mark from 1985 — though that figure would need to nearly triple to reflect the racial makeup of Baton Rouge's current population.
Last year, three other Louisiana cities that had been under the decree were released from federal oversight after federal officials determined they had met the conditions set out decades ago, according to court documents.
Justice Department attorneys overseeing the consent decree found that Covington, Harahan and West Monroe had developed and regularly used hiring and promotion practices that did not have an "adverse impact on black and female applicants and employees."
Most notably, federal officials concluded, "the current composition of the police and/or fire departments of (the cities) mirror the makeup of the relevant comparative civilian labor force of the hiring area."
While court documents do not explain how they reached that position, all three of those cities have minority populations much smaller than that of Baton Rouge, all with less than 35 percent black residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Despite many attempts to improve diversity in hiring and promoting, Mack said he believes that under Paul's leadership the BRPD can make that last push needed to finally free the agency from the consent decree.
"The leadership in the department has made a decisive jump," Mack said. "(Paul) has great ideas, he’s proactive.”
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BRPD Sgt. Bryan Taylor, the president of the Baton Rouge Union of Police, sees things differently. He said continued federal oversight seems unwarranted, based on the strides the department has already made.
"The department has done a wonderful job recruiting minorities, but at the end of the day it’s not a private business. ... Interested is one thing, qualified is another," Taylor said. "I believe the department over the years has gone above and beyond."
Taylor said he thinks the department should no longer be under the consent decree.
"They have far exceeded the mandate and they continue to do so ... I think we should long been removed from that," Taylor said.
But NAACP state president Mike McClanahan said the consent decree is there for a reason.
“I do believe that it's improving, it was improving under the last chief," McClanahan said. "But not only should it be reflected in the overall numbers, but it should reflect in top brass, in retention, in discipline."
The most recent numbers the city sent to the Department of Justice show that the representation of minorities with ranks of sergeant or higher are even worse than their representation in the department as a whole. Only 22 percent of those with a rank of sergeant or higher are black and only 5 percent are women.
"The powers that be don’t want equitable change, we’re slow to do what’s right," McClanahan said. "We should have gotten it right years ago."
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