BY KIMBERLY VETTER
Advocate staff writer
July 04, 2012
Police Chief Dewayne White said a little more than a year ago when he was asked to head Baton Rouge’s largest law enforcement agency that he was confident he could make the capital city safer.
White recently said his confidence has not waned, and despite a challenging first year, he is moving toward his goal and is seeing change inside and outside the Baton Rouge Police Department.
“I have taken this position as I have past management positions with zeal and confidence,” White said. “And I remain confident this agency is on the right course to tackling the stigmatizing problem crime has on this or any other city.”
White, a retired State Police major and former Baton Rouge police officer, was named police chief May 27, 2011.
Since then, he has put more officers on the streets, held his staff accountable, and talked openly about the lack of trust between the Police Department and the community, primarily the black community.
The chief’s candor has drawn criticism from some and compliments from others.
Kwame Asanté, president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he’s pleased with White, whom he has met with several times and who has been “very open and transparent about his intentions.”
Such transparency is key to building a trusting relationship between the Police Department and the black community, Asanté said. Regular communication also is essential, he said.
In the past, Asanté said, his organization has been “at odds” with the Police Department because its leaders didn’t communicate with the NAACP unless there was a situation that forced them to do so.
White “seems to understand the challenges” facing the Police Department and the black community and “doesn’t try to run away or sweep them under the rug,” Asanté said.
As a result, Asanté said, the number of calls placed to his office by people complaining about the Police Department has decreased at least 50 percent during the past year.
White said he too has seen a decrease in the number of complaints the Police Department receives from the public. He said “use of force” complaints have dropped almost 50 percent since he became chief.
Focus on accountability
White attributes the decline to his holding officers accountable for their actions. He said he’s fired one officer and disciplined several others since becoming chief.
He’s also moved high-ranking officers from desk jobs to supervisory roles in the field and is in the process of hiring three deputy chiefs, who will head the department’s three main bureaus — uniform patrol, criminal investigation and administrative services.
“I want my officers to be exemplary in appearance and conduct, and I think we can achieve that through the installation of discipline and accountability, which is now starting to take root,” White said. “I am seeing a change.”
Such change, however, hasn’t come without a fight.
Some officers, upset about being transferred, filed grievances with the Baton Rouge Union of Police Local 237 while others took their complaints to the Internet, posting songs on Facebook and YouTube that made fun of their colleagues who had either been transferred or who had ordered such moves.
The union sided with some of the officers and convinced the chief to rescind some of the transfers.
Around the same time, the chief publicly criticized the union, telling those attending a March meeting of the Baton Rouge Rotary Club that the union is his biggest obstacle to making systematic changes to the Police Department.
The chief’s comments sparked another fire in October when White, speaking on the “Baton Rouge’s Morning News with Clay Young and Kevin Meeks” program on WJBO radio, said he has some officers so accustomed to dealing with criminals who are black that it “becomes ingrained … that most people (the officers) come across with that color of skin are probably criminals.”
Union President Chris Stewart fired back days later on the same radio show, saying the chief’s comments were unfair and inaccurate. He said the Police Department is a nationally accredited, “flagship department,” and “to paint us in any other light is offensive.”
During the past few months, the spats between the union and the chief have slowed, and both Stewart and White said they’ve agreed to discuss their issues in private instead of airing them in public.
“Management and labor will always disagree on some points,” White said. “But honorable people can disagree honorably and that’s what we’ve chosen to do.”
Stewart agreed and said the infighting was counterproductive, especially when both parties have the same goal, which is to “get the crime rate under control.”
Stewart added that the chief is doing his best to make Baton Rouge safer and is working hard to get what he needs from Mayor-President Kip Holden and the Metro Council in terms of equipment and staff to get the job done.
“He’s never turned us down and has always said he would work with us,” Stewart said about the chief. “That’s really all we can ask at the end of the day.”
So far, the chief’s track record with the mayor and the council has been good.
During his short tenure as chief, White has received money for one police academy and should soon receive funds for another from Holden’s $11.1 million budget supplement passed by the Metro Council on Wednesday. The supplement also will pay for almost 683 new weapons and 41 vehicles.
The academies, the chief said, have helped him boost the number of officers assigned to uniform patrol by 8 percent, bringing the number of people assigned to the division to 376.
Although grateful for what he’s received, White said he needs more.
He said he would like to assign another 174 officers to uniform patrol, which would bring the total number of officers patrolling the city’s streets to 550.
White recently told the Metro Council he will ask the mayor’s office for 75 more officers next year. He said he also will ask for a budget increase.
The chief said his requests are “about reducing the murder rate, reducing violent crimes and making people feel safer in their homes and community. In order for us to do that, we need newer equipment and additional people.”
Holden said at that council meeting that the chief’s request will be considered, but “no department that comes into the process gets 100 percent of their requests.”
Mayor Pro Tem Mike Walker said White’s proposal should be taken seriously.
“We don’t know where to start if he doesn’t ask,” said Walker, who is running for mayor-president and has attacked Holden’s record on crime in the parish. “We are past the point of saying something can’t be done when people are being killed nightly.”
In the meantime, White said he’s doing everything he can with the resources he has to stop the criminals wreaking havoc in the Capital City.
A street operations unit composed of detectives and uniform patrol officers goes weekly to the areas of town where the most violent crime is occurring, the chief said.
Members of the unit serve felony warrants and make felony arrests, he said, adding that statistics show violence plummets on the nights the unit goes out.
White said he also has formed the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination enforcement unit, which is part of the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination Project, a new violent crime intervention plan aimed at violent offenders as well as drug offenders in the city’s 70805 ZIP code.
That ZIP code includes an area bordered by Airline Highway to the north and the east, Choctaw Drive to the south and the Mississippi River to the west. The area represents 13 percent of the city’s population but 30 percent of its homicides, according to the mayor.
One of the primary goals of the five officers assigned to the unit is to foster relationships with law-abiding residents in the area, the chief said. Such relationships are key to fighting crime, he said.
“On any block there is one retired couple, and if you gain their trust, they will tell you who’s doing what and where,” White said. “That’s the element we are missing.”
Metro Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards serves part of the 70805 ZIP code, and said she is seeing barriers being broken because of White’s leadership style, which includes “transparency, integrity and character.”
She said she saw a great deal of “synergy” between the Police Department’s BRAVE unit and Baton Rouge residents at a recent community meeting about crime.
“That’s a very positive sign,” she said. “It’s a healthy sign and I think it’s going to service our community well.”
Gregory V. White, pastor of Beech Grove Baptist Church on Thomas Road, said White has a challenging task before him but is making progress.
He said White and several of his officers who are part of the Police Department’s chaplain program connected with his congregation earlier this month when they came to worship with them.
“Chief White’s plan to connect with the community seems to be very thoughtful,” the pastor said. “People are saying it’s a good start.”
Van Mayhall, chairman of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber Crime Issues Council agreed and said in a letter to the editor published in The Advocate on March 31 that “leading change is hard work.”
“We encourage others to support White and the department during this time of internal restructuring,” he wrote. “They deserve the support of the whole community as they work to fight crime.”