At one late-night shooting scene, all too familiar in Baton Rouge, the new chief of police got some encouragement: a young woman started to describe, not quietly, the getaway car and what she had seen of the driver and passengers.
To protect her from becoming a target, Chief Murphy Paul said, he instinctively asked her to talk more quietly — and she didn't want to. That witness, he said, was loud-and-clear evidence that "this community is sick and tired of crime in this city."
At six months in, the chief related the anecdote to the Press Club of Baton Rouge as part of a wide-ranging update of the force he is leading through the summer, what is traditionally a time when violence spikes in many parts of Baton Rouge.
Brought in from a 26-year career in law enforcement ending at Louisiana State Police, Paul is a newcomer to a department that has not always been welcoming to outsiders. Change isn't going to be easy.
A 10-year-old Baton Rouge Police Union contract will remain in effect for a few more months while representatives for the city and the officer…
The cumulative impact of the Alton Sterling shooting and the subsequent assassination of "three of our heroes" were followed by the catastrophic flood of 2016, and then the stressful 2017 record year of homicides.
Whew. "All the emotional things we saw, our officers were still out there and answering calls for service," Paul said. One of Paul's administrative goals is that officers will open up more, to talk to colleagues or seek outside help over the stresses of recent years, even as the force seeks to be accountable for its actions.
Paul's record is on both the street-level and administrative sides of law enforcement. He counts as a friend New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison, who also stresses the importance of people coming forward to help officers find wrongdoers. Like Harrison, he is recruiting to fill vacancies; Baton Rouge's department is about 50 officers short of its full complement.
Administrative goals include an eventual pitch for a police pay raise. He said a detailed pay study should be ready this summer, but that in general, Baton Rouge officers are about 20 percent behind comparable agencies.
The department is also spending money on software and new technology to break down "silos" in the organization, Paul said.
In learning about his new post, he said he's been optimistic about the chances to make Baton Rouge safer and the city force more effective.
A key element: community support. The 300 to 400 calls a month to Crimestoppers are a sign, he said, that people want to clean their city up.
He listed a dozen particular initiatives that are working to bring police closer to those they serve, including outreach like a "conversation with the cops" at a Scotlandville coffee house recently. Broader community overtures like that of the Urban Congress sponsored by Metromorphosis are intended to deal with the underlying problem: "We have an issue with young black men," Paul said.
Those are about 85 percent of suspects in violent crimes; he believes it's a consequence of the lock-them-up response nationwide to the crack cocaine epidemic, so that mothers and grandmothers had to raise a generation of young men without fathers and uncles.
But lest his talk veer too far into a Columbia University sociology seminar, Paul also stressed positive results from police work. He said the department ended 2017 with a 47 percent clearance rate on homicides, with the national average at about 60 percent.
With hard work, the department really picked up the pace, Paul said, resolving more than 70 percent in the last three months. With a half-dozen arrests this year, of people involved in previous incidents, that helped boost the 2017 rate to close to the national average, about 58 percent.
Still, much remains to be done. "There are too many guns on the streets of Baton Rouge," Paul said. "Too many."
He urged parents to search rooms or cars of their youngsters and if a gun is found, "call us and we'll come and get it, no questions asked."
Email Lanny Keller at email@example.com.