BR police struggle with diversity

In January 2012, former Baton Rouge Police Chief Dewayne White received a memo from a recruiting officer outlining several concerns over the future makeup of the Police Department.

The memo refers, in part, to a demographic imbalance that has long frustrated the department’s recruiting division: In a city that has grown increasingly diverse, the Police Department’s force of nearly 700 officers remains overwhelmingly white.

Despite efforts to diversify in recent years, “our numbers have stayed consistent throughout each hiring process in all aspects,” the memo states.

The recruiting division’s greatest concern, it adds, was that “the diversity numbers are not increasing with each process.”

The memo, along with several years of recruiting data all obtained through a public records request, underscores the challenge the Police Department has faced for decades in fielding a force that reflects the community it serves.

White drew new attention to those concerns at his termination hearing last month, claiming the U.S. Justice Department had expressed “grave concern” over the department failing to recruit more minorities and females.

As a result, the ousted chief added, the city faced long odds in being released from a 1980 consent decree, an agreement with the federal government that seeks to prevent discriminatory hiring practices within the city’s police and fire departments.

William Daniel, chief administrative officer to Mayor-President Kip Holden, said White’s remarks were “hyperbole.”

“In our dealings with the Justice Department, they have never raised a question as to the hiring practices of the city,” Daniel said in an interview.

“We think that we’re meeting the expectation of the Justice Department on this particular issue.”

But while city-parish officials are optimistic about resolving the litigation — and ending its attendant reporting requirements — an analysis of five years of hiring data shows black applicants seeking to become police officers remain less likely than their white peers to be selected for the training academy.

Lt. Don Kelly, a police spokesman, said there is no simple explanation for why a more diverse group of recruits has not made it onto the force, and he defended the department’s hiring standards as “fair” and “necessary.”

“We’re looking at individuals, we’re not looking at classes,” Kelly said. “We don’t want to lower the standards. We think that’s a disservice to the public and to the agency.”

But based on the stubbornly consistent numbers, Kwame Asanté, president of the Baton Rouge chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, questioned how aggressive the department’s efforts have been to diversify.

Asanté on Friday called for the creation of a community oversight board to ensure the goals of the consent decree are being met.

“A lot of us feel there has not been enough of a community-based effort to recruit within the city limits,” Asanté said in an interview. “The type of outreach that we need has not been there, and there needs to be a more concerted and direct effort in working with the school system and working with our local colleges and returning military to identify and recruit (qualified) individuals.”

White men continue to apply to the Police Department more than any other demographic group, but the data show a higher percentage of black applicants struggle to clear the hurdles of the department’s multi-phase hiring process.

For the six academies from 2008-12, about 29 percent of white applicants who passed the civil service test and were eligible for a physical assessment were hired as recruits, the data show, compared to about 19 percent of black applicants who met that same criteria.

Some would-be officers lose interest and quit the process, while others are removed through measures like background checks. The hiring data, which the city-parish regularly submits to the Justice Department as compliance reports, did not include a racial breakdown of those disqualifications.

A higher rate of black applicants than white applicants — 11.4 percent compared to 8.3 percent — failed initial physical assessments, the data show. Women were more than twice as likely as men to fail the physical assessment.

Black candidates also have been more likely than white candidates to receive an unfavorable vote from the department’s “oral interview board,” a seven-member panel that quizzes recruits before recommending to the police chief whether they should be hired.

While more than half of white candidates during the past five hiring cycles came away with a 7-0 “vote to hire,” only 37 percent of black candidates received that unanimous approval, the data show. Black candidates also were more likely than white candidates — 30 percent compared to 23 percent — to receive a 0-7 vote from the board, the data show.

The board included at least two or three black members during those years, and, at one point, was made up of four black officers and three white officers, said Dawn Guillot, an assistant parish attorney.

“Obviously, a chief is going to take the board’s recommendation into consideration,” Kelly said, “but in the end, the chief reserves the right to hire whomever he wishes, regardless of the board’s vote.”

Of the 173 recruits hired into the 74th through 79th basic training academies, about 35 percent were black recruits and about 14 percent were female recruits.

“I’m really confused as to what pool of people we’re looking for to find qualified people,” Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said. “The question becomes, ‘Where are you looking?’ ”

A separate review of Office of State Examiner data showed that between July 2011 and December 2012, about 2 percent of white applicants failed the civil service entrance exam to become a Baton Rouge police officer, compared to 15 percent of black applicants. Robert S. Lawrence, the deputy state examiner, said in an email response that “research shows that there are differences in scores between racial groups on standardized knowledge, skills and ability tests, such as the entrance police officer test.”

However, he added, “we are proud that our test does not have adverse impact according to the EEOC Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures, the standard for employment testing established by the Federal government.”

Among the first black women recruited to join the Baton Rouge Police Department was Pam Kidd, who served 30 years and became the agency’s first black female captain.

“Some of the white officers did not want to take orders from a female, let alone a black female,” Kidd said last week. “But they overcame. I stood my ground.”

Kidd, who is now retired, added that it is “very challenging” for a majority white police force to earn the trust of black communities. Disillusioned after an historic career, Kidd said she, too, is skeptical of the police now that she is a civilian again.

Consent decree

Baton Rouge and nearly three dozen other Louisiana cities and parishes entered into a partial consent decree in 1980 to resolve claims of discriminatory hiring practices raised by the federal government. Federal officials had accused those jurisdictions of using hiring processes that had an “adverse impact” on black and female applicants for police officer or firefighter.

The consent decree prohibits the municipalities from discriminating on the grounds of race or sex.

In 1980, the Baton Rouge Police Department had 326 commissioned officers, about 10 percent of whom were black officers. Women, meanwhile, made up about 19 percent of the force.

The city’s population at the time was about 28 percent black, according to U.S. Census figures.

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

As a long-term goal, the departments were to try to hire a force that represented the proportion of blacks and women of the local labor force, subject to the availability of qualified applicants.

Some community leaders like Asanté have raised concerns over the current demographics of the Police Department. Of the 682 sworn officers, about 69 percent are white and 29 percent are black.

The 2010 Census estimated the city’s population to be 39.4 percent white and 54.5 percent black, and East Baton Rouge Parish’s labor force in 2011 was just over 42 percent black, according to data from the Louisiana Workforce Commission.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office has 707 sworn law enforcement and corrections officers: about 39 percent are black and 60 percent are white. Some 75 percent of those officers are men. Census estimates as of 2011 put the parish’s black population at 45.5 percent and white population at about 50 percent.

The Baton Rouge Fire Department, which is also subject to the federal consent decree, has about 568 employees, spokesman Robert Combs said. Of those, about 28 percent are black.

Recruiting efforts

Baton Rouge was not among the 20 cities and parishes — including Lake Charles, Monroe and Shreveport — that were found to have substantially complied with the decree and released from it in late 2012. Nine jurisdictions had previously been released between 1980 and 2004.

The five jurisdictions that remain in the litigation “were found to need additional time to meet the requirements of the decree,” said Dena Iverson, a Justice Department spokeswoman.

Along with the Baton Rouge police and fire departments, the agencies remaining are the Alexandria police and fire departments, Covington Police Department, Harahan police and fire departments and West Monroe police and fire departments.

“These jurisdictions will be reevaluated by the department this year,” Iverson added.

The jurisdictions released from the court action have police and fire departments that “mirror the makeup of the relevant comparative civilian labor force of the hiring area,” Rachel Hranitzky, a Justice Department attorney, wrote in a court filing.

Recruiting officers in Baton Rouge have reached out to minority communities through appearances at job fairs, churches and universities. Holden declined to be interviewed last week but released a statement Friday describing the Police Department’s efforts — through job fairs and advertising — to recruit a diverse pool of applicants.

Looking back, Kidd, the department’s first black female captain, said the department still has a long way to go toward achieving racial equality.

“Over the years, they haven’t been as blatant as they were when I went through,” she said. “I feel that if they could have, I never would have went up the ladder. If they had a choice, they never would have promoted me.”

Kidd called the firing of White, who had been widely credited with mending fences in the black community, a setback.

“With all the hoopla that’s gone on in the last month or so, I think we’ve been knocked back at least 10, 15 years,” she said.