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Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul shown in a February 2018 Advocate file photo.

Changes are in store for the Baton Rouge Police Department’s promotion system after state lawmakers approved an overhaul that’ll give the chief more discretion in deciding which officers to tap to leadership positions.

The Baton Rouge police chief will be able to weigh factors other than years of service while evaluating applicants vying for promotions under House Bill 438 by Rep. Ted James, which passed the Louisiana House on a 97-to-0 vote Monday. The Senate had earlier passed it 28 to 8 on Saturday.

The current system for promotions relies almost exclusively on seniority, with open posts automatically going to the longest-serving officer who applied and passed a qualifying exam.

Under the revised rules, the five most senior officers would all be eligible for consideration, with the chief allowed to consider other qualifications before deciding on a promotion.

BRPD Chief Murphy Paul asked for the change, arguing that BRPD’s current system hamstrings leadership at the department by preventing top brass for elevating proven leaders and stifling the careers of promising young cops.

James, D-Baton Rouge, said seniority would still count heavily for officers moving up the ranks but would no longer be the only factor. The change only applies to the Baton Rouge Police Department and doesn’t affect any other agency.

Louisiana lawmakers had to weigh in on the changes because civil service rules for police officers across the state are written into the state constitution. A spokeswoman for Gov. John Bel Edwards said he’d need to review the legislation before deciding whether to sign it.

Union officials representing most rank-and-file officers opposed the changes, claiming it could deny long-serving cops promotions they’ve earned and framing it as a potential first salvo in a broader assault on civil service protections.

But lawmakers supporting the changes described it as a common-sense reform that’d boost professionalism, allow the Baton Rouge Police Department to improve its leadership ranks and reward high-achieving officers.

The current promotional system, they noted, doesn’t allow the chief to consider factors like commendations, educational achievements, disciplinary issues or feedback from other colleagues in choosing which officers move into leadership roles.

The Magnolia State Peace Officers Association, a statewide organization for black police officers, supported the changes.

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

Paul said he plans to create a committee to review the qualifications of applicants and make recommendations. Paul said the department also plans to offer more leadership training opportunities to officers interested in future promotions.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Baton Rouge, amended the bill so it wouldn’t go into effect until March 31, 2020. White said that’d give Paul time to work out details of that recommendation process with police union officials and other stakeholders.

Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome spoke out in support of the bill and most — though not all — Baton Rouge-area lawmakers eventually backed it.


Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.