La. PD diversifies with majority Black, nearly half female recruit class

"I firmly believe this graduating class will be part of changing the trajectory of public service in our city," said Mayor Sharon Weston Broome

By Lea Skene
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

BATON ROUGE, La. — Amid dire staffing shortages and ongoing efforts to diversify the city police force, the latest class of new Baton Rouge police officers adds to what leaders called the changing face of an agency working to reform its image.

After 22 weeks of training, the class of nine cadets graduated from the 87th Basic Training Academy on Monday morning — an unusually small group whose demographics could represent a shift for the department, which historically has been dominated by white men.

Of the nine graduates, eight are Black and four are women.

"Often women don't believe they can do this job because it's considered a man's profession," said Raychelle Rogers, 21, who grew up in Baton Rouge and applied to join the police department as soon as she was old enough.

Boosting diversity is priceless, she said, because it brings different backgrounds, perspectives and approaches to policing.

According to recent demographic data, the department is about 90 percent male and 60 percent white.

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The agency has long struggled to grow the ranks of Black and female officers, even under a 1980 consent decree that lasted until 2019 and imposed federal oversight of hiring and promotional practices. The agreement sought to end discrimination and make the force more reflective of the population it serves.

"I firmly believe that this graduating class will be part of changing the trajectory of public service in our city," Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome said during the graduation ceremony Monday morning. "I see you as a new generation of leaders."

Broome was elected mayor shortly after the 2016 fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling, a Black man killed during a struggle with two white Baton Rouge police officers outside a convenience store. Cell phone video of the shooting was shared widely on social media, prompting heated demonstrations against police brutality and a reckoning over community-police relations in Baton Rouge.

Broome appointed Murphy Paul police chief in late 2017, and he vowed to change the culture inside the department.

Over the past couple years, BRPD has struggled with a deepening manpower shortage, a challenge facing many law enforcement agencies across the country. Experts believe pandemic stress and increased scrutiny following the George Floyd killing are making it harder for agencies to attract new recruits.

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The problem is exacerbated at BRPD because its officers are significantly underpaid compared to their colleagues at other agencies.

The guest speaker during the Monday ceremony, Officer Antonio Williams, acknowledged the difficult climate and cautioned his new colleagues to rise above the negativity. He likened their inevitable critics to backseat drivers.

"Don't let your career be run by backseat drivers," he said. "They'll tell you, 'You don't get paid enough, you smile too much, it's too early to be so happy.' ... You have to hear them but choose not to listen."

"Remember why, in the midst of turmoil between the community and police, remember why you still chose to sign up to be a part of something bigger than yourself."

Recent staffing data shows the number of sworn officers in the Baton Rouge Police Department has fallen to its lowest point since at least 2015. The department was 113 officers short as of Oct. 1 — about 16 percent of allotted positions. Meanwhile the Baton Rouge homicide rate is higher than ever amid a prolonged spike in gun violence.

The nine new officers will help get more boots on the ground, but department leaders had hoped for more. The academy class started with double that number of recruits.

Officials declined to release exact details about why they dropped out, saying only that the agency refuses to compromise its standards despite the staffing problems.

"It takes heart. You've got to have a whole heart," said Caruntai Harrell, president of the academy class, speaking after the ceremony.

Minutes earlier, she was kneeling down to kiss her son Kyrie Moses, 4, while he helped pin a shining brass badge onto her uniform. Kyrie was dressed up for the occasion himself, wearing a white button up shirt and a tiny bow tie.

"He's my motivation," she said, explaining how she considered becoming a police officer for years before finally getting up the courage to apply.

Harrell, 27, graduated from Glen Oaks High School and took some college level criminal justice classes before submitting her application. She said she likes where the city police department is headed under Paul and his administration.

As class president, Harrell delivered a speech during the ceremony, congratulating her classmates on surviving the academy and reminding them of the hurdles already behind them.

She stood before her fellow officers and their supporters, small and strong in her perfectly pressed blue uniform, and quoted Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. secretary of state, whose death was announced early Monday morning: "A dream doesn't become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination, and hard work."

Harrell and her classmates will spend months training with other officers in the field before responding to calls independently.

In the meantime, department leaders are already lining up their next training academy class, which is set to begin in December.

(c)2021 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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