Metro Council debates allowing voters to elect police chief

The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council this week will weigh the pros and cons of allowing voters to elect future Baton Rouge police chiefs, a discussion fueled by the controversial ouster of Police Chief Dewayne White.

“I just believe that something has to happen in terms of the way it’s done now,” said C. Denise Marcelle, the councilwoman pushing the discussion item. “I don’t like the way it was handled this time.”

Such an amendment to the Plan of Government, if approved by voters, would strip the mayor-president of his authority to hire and fire the police chief. But unless a majority of the council agrees and calls for a special election — a costly undertaking several council members said they oppose — the move is unlikely to affect the search for the city’s next police chief.

“You’re talking months, maybe years,” Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards said of the time it would take to put the measure on the ballot and implement the change. Edwards said she is taking a “wait and see” approach to the discussion.

“If the position is an elected position, they’re going to be accountable to the community,” she said. “On the opposite side, I think it could perhaps polarize the two positions between the administration and the police, especially as it relates to budgetary differences.”

Council members offered differing views of the potential benefits and pitfalls of electing the police chief, but several expressed interest in a “compromise” that would call for the council to approve the mayor-president’s appointment and termination of police chiefs.

“I don’t want somebody being able to hire and fire a chief as they see fit. I think that’s bad business,” said Councilman Trae Welch. “There’s got to be some sort of checks and balances.”

Allowing council members to approve the mayor’s appointment of police chief also would require a change to the Plan of Government and would have to go before the voters, Councilman Joel Boé said.

“I’m going to throw it out there as just another option to consider,” Boé said, adding he opposes switching to an elected chief.

Marcelle said she remains undecided as to whether an elected chief is the way to go.

“It will be interesting for me to hear the public’s opinion about it,” she said. “As a council, we need to listen to the constituents and people in our community.”

Marcelle, who has been among White’s most vocal supporters, tried to bring the issue up for discussion at a council meeting earlier this month. The item required the rules be waived, which drew an objection from Councilman John Delgado.

Councilman Chandler Loupe, who chairs the Metro Council as mayor pro tem, said he opposes changing to an elected police chief. He also said he doesn’t think the council should have veto power over the mayor’s pick.

“I do not see how we could make informed decisions when we do not control and or direct any aspect of police operations,” Loupe wrote in an email.

In Louisiana, 98 municipalities have appointed police chiefs, while 210 elect their police chiefs, according to figures provided by the Secretary of State’s Office.

The state’s largest cities have appointed police chiefs, while many smaller communities elect theirs, including Baker, Zachary, Port Allen and Gonzales.

Slaughter Police Chief Walter Smith, a retired Baton Rouge police major, said he wouldn’t be in his current job if it were an appointed position. Among the advantages elected chiefs enjoy, Smith said, is a degree of autonomy that allows them to manage the department as they see fit without having to be afraid of ruffling the wrong feathers.

“It gives a person four years to be in a position to do a job, and then the people can decide. If they don’t like what they have, they can choose,” Smith said. “It takes a little time to convert and manage something to where it needs to be. You don’t have that in an appointed situation. Basically you’re there until they want you to go.”

The firing of White, less than two years into his term, drew praise from the police union but criticism from some community leaders.

The ousted chief, who is appealing to the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board, has been accused of insubordination and repeatedly violating departmental policy.

Mayor-President Kip Holden told reporters last week that the community deserves a better chief, referring to White as “the master of deception.” White, in turn, accused Holden of micromanaging the police department, a claim that has fanned discussion of whether future police chiefs should be directly accountable to voters.

Delgado characterized the discussion as a “knee-jerk reaction.”

“The purported reason for doing it is to de-politicize things, and I cannot imagine that there would be any way to inject more politics into this situation than to make the chief an elected position,” Delgado said.

Greg Phares, a former Baton Rouge police chief, said the question to be answered is whether it’s worthwhile to change a system that has “worked well” for decades over one episode.

“It’s rarely good government to solve personnel problems with huge changes in plans of government,” Phares said. “You solve personnel problems by replacing personnel, and you’re able to do that every four years in Baton Rouge with the mayor.”

Phares also served for a time as East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff. He was named to the position in December 2006 after former Sheriff Elmer Litchfield resigned for health reasons but lost to the current sheriff, Sid Gautreaux, in an election the following year.

Boé said the controversy over White’s firing could lend momentum to the push to merge the Baton Rouge Police Department and the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office.

“This couldn’t happen at a better time,” Boé said. “Our first unification committee meeting is March 6, so I think it will only give us additional reasons why unification is a good idea.”