Our Views: Issues need clear review

Shortly after he took office as chief of the Baton Rouge Police Department, Dewayne White butted heads with the police union, a strong and early supporter of Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden during his mayoral campaigns. Now, Holden has fired White, prompting a big thumbs-up from union leaders.

Holden maintains that “no politics” entered into his decision to fire White, but members of the public can’t be blamed for being skeptical.

White’s attorney, Jill Craft, said White plans to appeal his firing before the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board, a five-member panel that could vote to reinstate White. That hearing probably won’t take place until March or April at the earliest.

We welcome that hearing as an opportunity for the public to examine more fully the activities of the Police Department and the circumstances that led to White’s termination. Baton Rouge’s continuing challenges with crime underscore the urgency of advancing public confidence in the effectiveness of the Police Department. The controversy regarding White’s departure from the department has shaken that confidence.

Police work is difficult and dangerous. We admire the dedicated officers who embrace this work and do it well. They deserve our thanks. But the picture painted by White of a department troubled by union favoritism and racist practices is a disturbing one. His allegations, if true, would suggest a need for radical reform of the department.

Holden has suggested that White’s complaints are the fabrications of a disgruntled and ineffective police chief. The mayor called White “the master of deception.”

But White is not alone in pointing to racism within the department. Last year, White said that while 90 percent of the department’s force embraces professional standards, 10 percent of his officers “want to do things their way.” He said some officers acted with prejudice in dealing with African-Americans.

Such charges aren’t new. In 2005, before White became police chief, officers from the New Mexico State Police and Michigan State Police who had visited Baton Rouge to help with local law enforcement efforts after Hurricane Katrina claimed that Baton Rouge police officers routinely harassed black people. The Baton Rouge Police Department initially refused to release records of those complaints, eventually being ordered to make them public after a lengthy court battle in which The Advocate sued for access to the records.

The U.S. Justice Department conducted and closed an investigation into the allegations of post-Katrina misconduct. The closure of the case without further action left a lot of questions unanswered, including this one: Why would out-of-state police officers from two separate agencies make such accusations?

White said that in trying to change the department, he was consistently thwarted by interference by the mayor and the union. Those are also troubling allegations that argue for a thorough public review of the department.

Theoretically, White could be reinstated as police chief if he wins his appeal before the civil service board. But it seems likely to us that White’s service as Baton Rouge’s police chief is over.

We don’t know if all or any of White’s allegations are true, and perhaps we will never know. Needless to say, White and Holden offer dramatically different assessments of what’s been happening in the Baton Rouge Police Department. But some of these allegations predate White’s tenure as chief, suggesting a pattern of concern that argues for a comprehensive, independent review of the department’s operations.

We urge the Metro Council to consider appointing an independent panel to conduct such a review. Such a panel, sufficiently distant from the Mayor’s Office, could have greater latitude in reviewing the Police Department’s operational culture with an objective eye.

We encourage the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and other civic groups to consider supporting this idea, too.

It’s time to clear the air concerning the continuing controversies at the Baton Rouge Police Department. An independent review panel could help advance that goal, and provide the public with some much-needed answers concerning the management of a key crime-fighting agency in this community.