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Take Down the Roadblocks

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Police Superintendent Richard Pennington's six-year campaign to raise the standards of the New Orleans Police Department has hit a major roadblock -- inside the department. Now, the chief will need public support to overcome an outrageous assault on his ground-breaking but modest college education requirements for future supervisory promotions at the NOPD.

Since April 1999, three separate written notices have been issued by the city, informing all officers that effective June 1, 2001, a high school general equivalency diploma (GED) will no longer be sufficient to become a police sergeant, lieutenant or captain. Officers interested in promotion were urged to take advantage of free or discounted tuition programs available to local cops at all eight colleges and universities citywide. Now, with the June deadline approaching, the four major police organizations within NOPD have come out against the chief's higher educational standards for supervisory positions.

"We're combining forces on this issue," said police Lt. David Benelli, president of the Police Association of New Orleans. Joining PANO are the Black Organization of Police (BOP), the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and Police Officer Women of Every Rank (POWER).

The battleground issue is the minimum 45 college credit hours required of all candidates who wish to take the sergeants' examinations in June. Benelli said the police groups place a "high value" on education, but he added that the requirement "is not really fair to those individuals who have spent their entire career as New Orleans police officers and who have the expertise as far as job knowledge."

Sgt. Dwight Fernandez, BOP vice-president, concurs. "We feel it totally discounts years of experience on the Police Department," Fernandez says.

The four groups want the city Civil Service Commission at its next regular meeting Thursday (May 17) to consider two alternatives to the chief's plan.

First, they want to exempt all officers hired before mid-1999 from the new educational standards -- even as they acknowledge their members had plenty of time (two years) to prepare for the new standards. That's unfair to the unknown number of sergeant candidates who responded to Pennington's directive in 1999 by enrolling in college. Unfortunately, the NOPD by last week still could not provide educational demographics of the 1,735-officer force -- 10 years after an International Association of Chiefs of Police study of the department pointed out the lack of that data.

Second, the police groups propose that the city provide "monetary incentives" to officers to obtain two-year or four-year degrees. Taxpayers already foot the bill for the free tuition that cops get for pursuing a two-year degree in criminal justice at Delgado Community College, as well as tuition discounts at other public institutions. Taxpayers should not also have to pay cops to take advantage of the fringe benefits of their profession.

Benelli and Fernandez both say officers who joined the force prior to 1999 were not informed that college educational requirements would be necessary for promotion. That's true, but change has to start somewhere. And the city gave everybody fair notice.

The new criteria, which will be phased in over 10 years, require a sergeant to obtain a minimum of a two-year associate's degree after 2004.

Candidates for lieutenant must obtain 60 hours of college credit (or an associate's degree) by June 2002 and a bachelor's degree by 2006. Candidates for captain must obtain a two-year degree by 2003 and a bachelor's degree by 2006.

Assistant Superintendent Ronal Serpas, a career cop and high school dropout who rebounded to earn his Ph.D in urban studies from UNO in 1998, insists the new standards are not onerous. "There is a significant relationship between higher education and the [effective] management of police departments ... and we believe in it," Serpas says of the NOPD. We agree.

Dee Harper, a professor of criminology at Loyola City College who has been teaching local cops since 1973, says many officers successfully juggle career, school and family. "I don't think it is any more difficult for police officers than for any other adult student," Harper says.

Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has determined that police departments have the right to require educational components for employee standards. And 67 percent of all major police departments require college educational components for promotion, according to the National Institute of Justice.

An unmet priority of Mayor Marc Morial's 1994 campaign was the mayor's 1997 pay plan for cops that would have raised educational standards even sooner. The effort fell off amid money woes and political wrangling with the City Council. "If we cut and run on this issue, we demonstrate that education is no value to this community," says Graymond Martin, a former NOPD lieutenant and the principal architect of Morial's crime reduction strategy. He is correct.

Civil Service Commission members now hold our best chance to institutionalize educational reform at NOPD. Call the commissioners at 565-6800. Tell them you support the chief's plan and oppose any roadblocks to a smarter NOPD.

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