Riegel: An opportunity for leadership

There are those who expected the sky would fall on the day the U.S. Justice Department announced its decision not to prosecute two Baton Rouge police officers for the July 2016 shooting death of Alton Sterling.

Some in our community had literally stocked up on canned goods and bottled water, gassed up the car and made an extra pass through the ATM, as if a storm of Saffir-Simpson proportions was closing in on Baton Rouge.

One New Orleans television station even hired a bodyguard to accompany its reporter to the U.S. District Courthouse for the May 3 announcement. The courthouse itself was ringed by barricades and manned by dozens of federal agents, who required two forms of identification of anyone who approached the building.

Thankfully, the feared violence and mayhem didn’t happen, at least not in the immediate days following the DOJ announcement. This was largely due to what appears to have been a calculated move by the DOJ to leak word of their decision to the national media and mute the potential outrage on the ground in Baton Rouge.

Late on the afternoon of May 2, The Washington Post broke the story—citing no less than four anonymous sources—that the feds would not be bringing federal charges against the officers and would announce their decision the next day.

The leak showed the feds’ utter arrogance and disrespect for the local community, particularly the Sterling family, who had been told they would receive advance notice before any decision was announced.

But it also demonstrated some shrewd thinking. Machiavelli wasn’t a nice guy but he was effective, and the feds played their hand brilliantly. Outrage over the decision not to prosecute was tempered by outrage over the way the decision was leaked. State and local officials couldn’t respond to unconfirmed reports about a decision they hadn’t been let in on yet, so nobody, really, could do anything. For the next 18 hours, as bad weather rolled into the area, the community gradually got used to the idea that the federal case was closed.

So Baton Rouge weathered one storm, but the hard part is really just beginning because the community can never go back to the way it was before. The Sterling incident and the subsequent ambush killing of three local law enforcement officers last summer brought to light a lot of the tensions that have bubbled beneath the surface here for a long time. How the community moves forward will be a defining moment for Baton Rouge.

It could also be a defining moment for Mayor Sharon Weston Broome.

She needs a win. Since taking office in January, she has proven that she is well-intentioned and hard working. She gives a lot of speeches and makes herself accessible, all of which is commendable and important.

But there are also real questions about her ability to get things done. She’s too nice, in some respects, and hasn’t demonstrated a stomach for playing political hardball.

Her first four months in office have been marred by several missteps. She vowed to hire a new police chief before researching the civil service rules—alienating law enforcement in the process. She bumbled the release of her transition team reports, and then appeared not to have read them. She spent months searching for a chief administrative officer, bypassing several highly qualified candidates, only to hire a guy that resigned a week later, after The Advocate exposed that he’d lied on his résumé and had been arrested twice.

In a city that has a strong mayor form of government written into its charter, a perceived lack of leadership at the top can create a void that opens the door for others to step in. As a result, people like state Rep. C. Denise Marcelle are positioning themselves out in front on a variety of issues—from apologist for the corrupt East Baton Rouge Council on Aging to spokesperson for the Sterling family—while Metro Councilwoman Chauna Banks recently led a walkout of a council meeting that brought the wheels of government to a halt.

Technically speaking, of course, Broome has limited control over what a legislator or council member does on any given day. But in the broader sense, when there’s a strong mayor at the helm that kind of silliness doesn’t happen around City Hall.

So now, while the community waits for Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry to review the Sterling case and determine whether state criminal charges are warranted, there are opportunities for Broome to get out in front and lead on some of the underlying issues that set the stage for the Sterling shooting in the first place.

Police reform is one. Economic development in north Baton Rouge and other impoverished neighborhoods is another. Those are specific areas in which concrete steps can be taken to bring about meaningful change. In the meantime, she has to bring on board a competent CAO, who knows how to run the city day-to-day and doesn’t play games based on skin color.

It’s an opportunity for Baton Rouge and its new mayor to turn things around before it’s too late. Just because the sky hasn’t fallen yet, doesn’t mean it still won’t. 

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