Attorney says Holden micromanaged police

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, center left, hugs Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White after a news conference at attorney Jill Craft's office to discuss White's firing on Wednesday.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, center left, hugs Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White after a news conference at attorney Jill Craft's office to discuss White's firing on Wednesday.

An attorney for ousted Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White accused Mayor-President Kip Holden of micromanaging the Police Department and forbidding White from speaking to the media at times amid a deteriorating relationship that ended in White’s abrupt dismissal Wednesday.

The attorney, Jill Craft, said White will try to win back his job at an appeal hearing later this month, adding the chief has received an outpouring of support and wants to finish the work he began in the community when he was appointed police chief nearly two years ago.

“I think that my client’s only desire, really, is to continue to serve the people of Baton Rouge,” Craft told reporters at a crowded news conference in her downtown office. “It’s an important job that needs to be finished.”

A day after White was handed a termination letter and asked to resign or be fired on the spot, Craft sharply criticized the city-parish government’s handling of his dismissal, saying she had extended an “olive branch” to officials weeks ago, after it seemed apparent that White’s job was in jeopardy.

Under mounting political pressure from the police union, Craft said, Holden increasingly constricted White in his ability to do his job. She said White had been ordered at times not to put certain business matters in writing because they would become public record.

The Police Department, she said, “essentially ceased functioning as an independent separate body and began functioning as a micromanaged organ within city-parish government.”

Holden, who has refused multiple requests to explain his reasons for firing White, declined to respond to Thursday’s news conference. A spokesman said afterward that the mayor would have no comment.

Earlier Thursday, prior to Craft’s news conference, Holden told a reporter, “My standard rule is I don’t discuss personnel matters in the media. I just don’t do it.”

White’s termination letter, which was signed by Holden’s chief administrative officer, William Daniel, says the basis for his firing “has to do with a substantial disagreement with the direction of the future of the Baton Rouge Police Department.”

Craft’s comments at Thursday’s news conference opened a window into some of the behind-the-scenes exchanges that had led to speculation that White’s days at the helm were numbered.

Tension had been mounting between White and the police union, Craft said, and the situation became particularly fraught after White transferred Chris Stewart, president of the local police union, “from a position with essentially non-existent duties to a position that required work.”

White, in brief remarks at the news conference, said Stewart had been moved to community policing from professional standards.

“There were a number of incidents that occurred thereafter, culminating in my client being given a direct order by the mayor of Baton Rouge that he was not allowed to make any personnel decisions, he was not allowed to discipline any officers, transfer any officers, move any officers or do anything with respect to the officers under his command unless the Mayor’s Office approved it personally,” Craft said.

She said White was ordered not to put such requests in writing because they would become public record.

“We can’t have a chief of police incapable of dealing with his own personnel, especially in a chain of command structure, paramilitary organization,” Craft said.

Stewart, president of Baton Rouge Union of Police Local 237, has not responded to numerous phone calls and text messages seeking comment.

White plans to appear for a hearing Feb. 18 at Holden’s office and will insist that it be made open to the public, Craft said.

“I think it’s time the people in the public need to know what’s happening,” she said.

Craft said the chief contacted her about three weeks ago after hearing persistent rumors that his firing was imminent. White’s impending dismissal, she said, had become “the worst-kept secret in Baton Rouge.”

“The only reason that the chief contacted me, frankly,” Craft said, “was so that I would be able to reach out to the mayor and try to obtain some sort of resolution to what could be a bad situation, frankly, for the sake of the citizens of this parish and for the sake of the morale of the officers.”

Craft said she made an overture to city-parish officials so White might be able to resign and retain a reputation he has worked hard to achieve. But when she spoke to Daniel, Holden’s chief administrative officer, Daniel told her he was not aware of any plan to fire White, Craft said.

“We were specifically told we don’t know what you’re talking about,” Craft said.

The mayor placed a “heated call” to White shortly after he learned White had hired an attorney, Craft said.

“This whole situation is very disappointing,” Craft said, adding that White was doing his job well.

The news conference came one day after White was abruptly fired from his position, ending a brief but tumultuous tenure in which he had repeatedly clashed with the police union.

Baton Rouge Police Lt. Carl Dabadie Jr., who was White’s chief of staff, has said he is assuming the chief’s duties for now. By departmental policy, the chief of staff automatically assumes the chief’s duties in his absence.

Upon being appointed, White had vowed to instill discipline and accountability in the department and seek to gain public trust through efforts such as community policing.

He said shortly after he was sworn in that the department was top heavy, and that he planned on moving some high-ranking officers from desk jobs to supervisory roles in the field. Officers upset over the transfers filed grievances with the union, while others took their complaints online.

White criticized the union publicly, telling those attending a meeting of the Baton Rouge Rotary Club once that the union was his biggest obstacle to effecting systemic changes in the department.

Another point of controversy between Holden and White happened after Holden was criticized during his last campaign about the use of city police to ferry and guard Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan as he traveled from New Orleans to a speaking engagement at Southern University, Craft said.

“There were some very heated discussions between the mayor and the chief about that particular incident,” she said.

White was given the option to resign Wednesday after a morning news conference, but when he asked for his attorney and the opportunity to call his wife, he was fired.

Craft said White was “devastated” by the news.

Advocate staff writers Rebekah Allen and Faimon A. Roberts III contributed to this report.