No justice, no peace, reform the municipal civil service law! Such a stirring call might not excite many people, at least not the last part. But if Alton Sterling’s death is to have any meaning beyond a single catastrophic collision with police in north Baton Rouge, the dull stuff must be worked out.
To paraphrase an old saying, the poetry of protest will at some point give way to the prose of government. That won’t be easy, with the racially charged circumstances of Sterling’s death at the hands of two white officers, but also because the mayor’s political standing is not high, and mundane restrictions like the municipal civil service laws are in fact obstacles to change.
“Our challenge, collectively, is to turn that frustration into positive change,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said, but that collective challenge is most salient for Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome at city hall and not at the State Capitol.
In the wake of the U.S. Justice Department’s decision not to charge the two officers in the July 5 shooting, the mayor appeared with the governor in her first really high-profile situation since taking office in January.
She used it to make the case that city-parish government has been responding to the crisis that began before she was elected but fell to her in January.
The Metro Council has appropriated $2.5 million for body cameras for the Baton Rouge Police Department and Broome worked with holdover Chief Carl Dabadie on revised use-of-force guidelines. City hall has worked closely with the governor and others to prepare for the long-delayed day of the DOJ ruling, Broome said.
Not mentioned is that she has failed to deliver, given civil service restrictions, on her campaign promise to replace Dabadie this year.
Before the mayor spoke, though, the leadership of Together Baton Rouge — “disappointed” by the DOJ ruling — called for specific police changes that more directly challenge the status quo at city hall.
“There are still fundamental changes to be made,” said the Rev. Lee Wesley, one of the TBR spokesmen.
The group’s agenda includes, yes, reform of the municipal civil service law to allow Broome to replace Dabadie, as police chiefs are appointed directly by mayors in other cities. But the TBR agenda went further, with calls for a police monitor “independent of the police chief” as well as a civilian review board for the force and release of the Sterling footage — the latter unlikely until a state-level review of the case has been completed. Pay raises and more aggressive recruiting of minority officers for the predominantly white city force are also on the list. Disparate arrest rates for minor drug offenses in the white and black communities are part of the group's complaints.
For an insular BRPD, long dominated by the union more than the chief or mayor, any of the items on the TRB list could be politically sensitive. The mayor’s political standing was shaken by her appointment of a chief administrative officer with a dubious resume, leading to his resignation. Racial divisions are evident on the Metro Council.
“This community deserves 21st Century policing,” Broome declared. Getting there is more than just gathering in the sheaves of consensus items but will require a tougher level of leadership from the new mayor.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.