The Louisiana House signed off on a proposal to tweak how the Baton Rouge Police Department promotes officers, endorsing changes to a system that relies almost exclusively on seniority to decide which cops move up the ranks.

Seniority would still weigh heavily in promotions under House Bill 438 by Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, which cleared the House on an 83-12 vote Tuesday. But the Baton Rouge police chief would be allowed to consider other qualifications while considering the five longest-serving applicants for a promotion.

Current law ensures that promotions to nearly all posts at BRPD automatically go to the longest-serving officer who passed a qualifying exam for the rank, regardless of their exam score or accomplishments.

Because civil service rules for police officers are enshrined in the state constitution, the changes will still require a two-thirds vote from the Senate before heading to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk. The changes wouldn’t apply to any other agency.

East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, BRPD Chief Murphy Paul and several Baton Rouge state representatives have pushed for the changes. So have a number of outside groups, including the Baton Rouge Chamber of Commerce, the Louisiana Association of Chiefs of Police and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.

“I’m asking to give the chief more authority over promotion,” James argued on the House floor.

But a number of union officials have criticized the possible changes, arguing the revisions of BRPD’s promotional process represented an attack on civil service protections more broadly.

Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, blasted it as “a horrible precedent” that would deny long-serving officers the promotions she argued they deserved.

“Seniority is everything,” Horton said while arguing against the bill.

But Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, who once led the State Police, called it a good proposal that would allow “police executives” to consider other important factors — including past military service, education, commendations or disciplinary issues — when deciding who to tap for promotions.

Landry said that “just being a warm body and the ability to take a test” don’t capture the talents departments ought to be looking for in leadership positions.

Baton Rouge lawmakers weren't unanimously behind the changes, with state Reps. Rick Edmonds and Franklin Foil among the 12 House members — all Republicans — voting against it. Edmonds pointedly noted opposition from the main union for rank-and-file BRPD officers while questioning James on the House floor.


Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.