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The NAACP has launched a billboard campaign attacking the Baton Rouge Police Dept. Union, using billboards like this one along I-10 near College Drive, seen on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

After Baton Rouge Union of Police leaders launched a billboard campaign last year criticizing the police chief and his administration, the Louisiana NAACP is responding with competing signage overlooking a major local thoroughfare.

While union leaders have expressed several viewpoints with their signs — including advocating for higher wages, bemoaning the high homicide rate and calling for better department leadership — the NAACP has a single demand: cancel the BRPD union contract.

A digital billboard posted Wednesday morning alongside Interstate 10 near College Drive invites people to visit a new website: www.endthecontract.com.

"Fix police union leadership," the sign says. "The time is now."

Officials in Mayor Sharon Weston Broome's office declined to comment on whether she will seriously consider canceling the contract. They said contract negotiations are hopefully in the final stages after persistent low wages became a major sticking point.

Broome obtained one 3% raise for all officers starting in January, and she recently requested another identical raise to take effect almost immediately — thanks to an unexpected pot of state funding the Louisiana Legislature appropriated for BRPD during a special session last fall.

The parish Metro Council voted Wednesday evening to grant the latest request, meaning a total increase of 6% over 2020 wages. Both increases were implemented without raising taxes for Baton Rouge residents.

The current union contract technically expired in 2016, though a rollover provision means it remains in place until the new one is signed.

NAACP leaders argue the contract serves to validate an institution that has pledged unwavering support to officers accused of serious misconduct. The group emphasized being generally supportive of labor unions, but against what they consider poor leadership at the BRPD union.

"Union leadership has consistently defended the wrongdoing of bad officers," said Eugene Collins with the Baton Rouge NAACP. "We believe that canceling the union contract will make officers behave better."

The new billboard comes amid a widening corruption probe focused on the BRPD narcotics division, where two detectives were recently arrested and four supervisors were transferred, effectively cutting the division in half. East Baton Rouge prosecutors have already dropped charges against more than a dozen defendants with ongoing cases that hinge on testimony from the arrested detectives.

Several months ago, the union treasurer — an officer with two decades of experience on the force — resigned from the department after other union members alerted the BRPD administration to a series of racist messages he posted on a local blog. He had been elected treasurer after campaigning on a platform of transparency and accountability, promising to be more open about how union funds are spent.

Meanwhile BRPD Chief Murphy Paul has picked his own battles with union leaders in recent months, partly in response to the union billboard campaign.

Paul fired the union vice president, Siya Creel, for doing an unapproved interview about the billboards last summer with a former Baton Rouge television reporter. Creel sued the department claiming his free speech rights were violated and pointing out that leaders have previously been allowed free rein to give media interviews discussing union business, including under Paul. He argued his termination was retaliatory.

One of the issues discussed during a lengthy hearing in federal court earlier this month was whether Creel and others designed and coordinated the billboard campaign while on the clock — something the NAACP called "an atrocious showing of character."

Creel appealed his termination before the local civil service board. Both cases are ongoing.

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The union president, Brandon Blust, also was recently issued a disciplinary suspension for untruthfulness, a serious policy violation, after Paul took issue with repeated scheduling conflicts while trying to meet with union leaders about an impending change to the promotion system. Paul said Blust repeatedly pushed back the meeting, then filed a grievance complaining about the prolonged timeline. He also appealed the suspension.

Those are just the latest sources of conflict between the chief and union leaders. The feud intensified after Mayor Sharon Weston Broome, who hired Paul after campaigning on a promise of police reform, described the union as an obstructionist force in her efforts to weed out the bad cops in Baton Rouge.

Union leaders, for their part, have long claimed that Paul will throw his officers under the bus to avoid public criticism. One of their billboards, located a short distance from department headquarters, said as much: "Defend the badge, not the criminal."

Now the NAACP is wading into the fray, offering its own sharp criticism.

"Baton Rouge Police Union leaders claim to back the blue, but the truth is they've left rank and file officers behind, promoted poor policing practices that protected bad cops and broke community trust," the group wrote on its new website. "They've played politics with our safety at every turn. And it's got to stop. Now."

Despite the strong words, it remains somewhat unclear what would happen if the mayor really did cancel the union contract.

Even without the contract, state civil service laws would still offer substantial protections for BRPD officers, regulating the discipline process and more.

However, the contract offers some other important rules. For example, when an officer is sued during the course and scope of his job, the city is required to provide defense counsel and cover the cost of damages. The contract also forbids officers from striking or picketing in protest. It offers a grievance process that starts with the chief and escalates to the mayor, and governs paid time off and overtime practices.

Contract negotiations have been ongoing for years now, a process that was already moving slowly before the pandemic prolonged things even more.

NAACP leaders noted that other law enforcement agencies operate just fine without union contracts, including the New Orleans Police Department. Police unions have come under fire in recent months amid the nationwide outcry for substantive police reform following the death of George Floyd last summer.

Amid the debate over BRPD union leadership, groups on both sides agree that Baton Rouge police officers should get paid more. The 6% raise brings starting base pay to about $36,000 after an officer has completed academy and spent six months on the job, then $42,000 after one year. That still leaves Baton Rouge cops significantly underpaid compared to their counterparts at peer law enforcement agencies.

The department faces issues recruiting and retaining officers, sometimes losing members to other agencies where salaries are better. Many Baton Rouge cops also rely on overtime and extra duty assignments to supplement low salaries.

Department leaders recently commissioned an efficiency study, in part to find hidden savings that could support a substantial pay raise. Researchers identified several recommended changes to make the department more efficient, including reorganizing its leadership structure, eliminating some high ranking positions and reducing overtime assignments. Those changes could save about $10 million annually, according to the study.

That would be just under half the estimated cost of bringing BRPD salaries in line with peer agencies, according to another study commissioned the year before whose authors found Baton Rouge cops are underpaid by about 30% on average.

The latest 3% bump approved on Wednesday, which costs $1.8 million annually, will initially be funded using about $2 million in state funds that the Louisiana Legislature issued as reimbursement for COVID-related expenses incurred by the city police department. After that, officials said efficiency measures will support the cost.

Also on Wednesday, the council unanimously approved similar pay increases for officers with the Baton Rouge City Constable's Office and the Baton Rouge Airport Police, two much smaller law enforcement agencies in the parish. Both would receive a 6% increase, funded through efficiency measures in the constable's office and through self-generated revenue at the airport. All the changes will take effect April 10.

BRPD officers could receive another raise before 2022, though the timeline remains uncertain. Officials said the latest proposed union contract language allows for both parties to revisit salary negotiations each year.


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.