Federal consent decree under review

City-parish officials on Tuesday disputed fired Police Chief Dewayne White’s claim this week that the Police Department is unlikely to come out from under a decades-old federal consent decree that forbids discriminatory hiring practices against black people and women.

“I think we’re on the way to being released,” Assistant Parish Attorney Dawn Guillot said.

“Unfortunately, it’s a situation where we can do some things, but there are some things we can’t help.”

At a contentious termination hearing Monday, White said the Police Department “still is not doing enough to recruit and hire black persons and females,” citing recent talks with the U.S. Justice Department.

Guillot said city-parish officials plan to meet with Justice Department representatives early next month to discuss the status of the consent decree.

The decree, which applies to both the police and fire departments, took effect in 1980 and applied to Baton Rouge and several other Louisiana cities and parishes.

“My appreciation is that they still wanted to look at the numbers and ask us a few more questions and meet with us some to get some more information,” Guillot said. “I think after our March meeting, we’ll have a better idea of what we need to do to try to meet those goals.”

Baton Rouge and nearly three dozen other Louisiana cities and parishes entered into a partial consent decree in 1980 to resolve a claim by the federal government that the jurisdictions “engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination” against black people and women in the hiring and promotion of police officers and firefighters.

The government had contended the defendants “used entry-level and promotional examinations and other selection processes that had an adverse impact on blacks and females,” according to court records.

Federal authorities had threatened to cut off revenue sharing and Law Enforcement Assistance Administration funds if discriminatory hiring practices were not ended.

The decree set forth an interim goal for the departments of filling at least 50 percent of all uniformed police and firefighter vacancies with qualified black applicants.

Nine of the 33 jurisdictions were dismissed from the decree between 1980 and 2004. Baton Rouge was not among the 20 cities and parishes — including St. Martinville, New Iberia and St. Landry Parish — that were released from the decree late last year and recognized for diversifying their police and fire departments.

The composition of black people and women among those departments “improved significantly and mirror the relevant civilian labor force in the hiring area,” U.S. District Judge Lance M. Africk wrote in a November order.

Baton Rouge has had more trouble recruiting and retaining minorities and women in part because the pool of qualified applicants is limited, Guillot said.

Smaller departments, meanwhile, have to find fewer minorities and women to diversify their ranks satisfactorily, she said.

Guillot said the city-parish does not have a specific quota to meet, and that the Justice Department has been more interested in analyzing the city-parish’s approach to recruiting than examining “just straight out numbers.”

“I think the goal is to try to make the process to where you eventually want it to reflect the population of the city,” Guillot said. “When you’re talking about discrimination in a statistical manner, you’re usually trying to match the population of the entity.”

Justice Department officials confirmed that Baton Rouge remains under the consent decree but did not respond to questions Tuesday about whether the city-parish had made progress.

White’s attorney, Jill Craft, stood by the ousted chief’s statements, saying Tuesday that racial and sex discrimination in the Police Department has been a long-standing issue that “really needs to be addressed.”

“I think what the chief was receiving from the Justice Department is they were not satisfied with the progress or initiatives of bringing in African-American and female employees into the Baton Rouge Police Department,” Craft said.

While law enforcement remains a “male-dominated profession,” the Police Department has made efforts in recent years to diversify, said Lt. Don Kelly, a police spokesman.

“Consent decree or not, it’s definitely on the mind of our recruiters and our agency to try and hire, first of all, the best candidates we can get,” Kelly said.

“But at the same time, you do want to have a department that is diverse and that reflects the population you serve, and that’s a reality and goal that we strive for all the time.”

Kelly said the department’s recruiting office reaches out to minority communities through appearances at job fairs, churches and universities.

“The biggest thing is our own officers telling their friends and their family about the job that they have and being salesmen for the department to try and recruit good, quality people that they know to come join us,” Kelly said, “and that’s where we get the majority of our good applicants from.”

Nearly 90 percent of the city’s police officers are men, Kelly said. About 69 percent of the department’s 687 officers are white, Kelly added, while about 29 percent are black.

The 2010 Census estimated the city’s population to be 54.5 percent black and about 39.4 percent white.

In 1980, when the consent decree took effect, city police had 326 commissioned officers. Only 34 — or about 10 percent — were black. Women made up about 19 percent of the force at the time, according to news accounts at the time.

The challenges of retaining female recruits was highlighted this week at the onset of the department’s 79th Basic Training Academy. Of the 30 recruits, only four were women, Kelly said. Two women — including a black woman — quit after the first grueling day of training, he said, as did one male recruit.

“In many cases it’s not that the effort is not being made,” Kelly said. “It’s just that there are only a certain number of qualified, willing applicants who want to come do the job and can make their way through all of our processes.”

Kelly added, “What you don’t want to do — and what we’ve always tried to avoid doing — is lowering our standards.”