The first major study of the New Orleans Police Department under Mayor Ray Nagin's administration promised to be what one source called a "blockbuster." Requested by the mayor, commissioned by the private New Orleans Police Foundation and conducted by scholars at the University of New Orleans, the detailed report on NOPD's manpower crisis would, a second source predicted, "send shock waves through this city."
It didn't happen. Ironically, the police study, released on Jan. 8, became quickly swallowed up in a 24-hour news cycle of bloody crimes.
Yet the blockbuster potential for the police study story remains. One month later, the depth and severity of NOPD's manpower crisis may still be understated as cops take to the streets this first weekend of Carnival to protect tens of thousands of parade-goers. The report spells out why cops are disappearing in a city that entered 2004 as the nation's homicide capitol of 71 major cities (with a population of 250,000 or more) for a second consecutive year.
As part of an unannounced compromise to appease image-conscious business leaders, sources close to the project say, neither the mayor, the UNO scholars nor Police Foundation officials directed the media's attention to the city's new, unwanted hegemony over national homicide rates.
The UNO report was disturbing enough, sources say, without calling attention to the "alarming" facts, which reporters could find on their own when -- or if -- they read the 34-page report or the Police Foundation's "action summary" placed inside the press kits distributed at the mayor's press conference.
Indeed, the most dramatic account of the study's findings on why (in the Foundation's words) NOPD is "bleeding police officers" is found in the summary that top Foundation executives authored with help from a local public relations firm. "New Orleans is facing a crisis: our police force is shrinking at the same time that our city has recaptured the distinguished title of 'murder capital' of the United States among major cities," the Foundation stated. "We now have only about 1500 officers actually engaged in police work, down from 1700 three years ago. Not surprisingly, the reduction in police strength has been accompanied by steep increases in the number of murders. A New Orleanian is now seven times more likely to be murdered than a New Yorker. (Italics from the report.)
"It is the belief of the New Orleans Police Foundation that this city needs a minimum 2000 officers to maintain adequate security and reduce the murder rate. Unfortunately, instead of increasing the size of the force, we have been moving steadily in the wrong direction. ...
"Morale in the department is very low, and officers are deserting the department at rates that are significantly higher than in other major police departments. The result is that citizens feel less safe and believe that crime is a growing problem. If these trends continue -- and there is every reason to believe that they will -- the impact on our community can be tremendous. New Orleans will become a less and less attractive place to live, work and visit."
Recounting the "three major reasons" cited in the UNO study for the shrinking NOPD -- poor pay, lack of consistent promotions, and the city's strict residency requirement -- the Foundation then offered three more contributing factors for the reduction in force:
· "Housing costs are higher in Orleans Parish than other Parishes in the metro area, and the residency requirement forces our police officers to bear these higher costs."
· "NOPD officers do not consider the Orleans Parish School system adequate; 84 percent send all or at least one of their children to school elsewhere, usually at additional expense."
· "NOPD officers make less (money) than their peers in other agencies; they have not been promoted as promised. This is especially crippling when coupled with the negative impact of the residency requirement, higher housing and education expenses."
Drawing on new data uncovered by Heidi Unter, associate director of research for the UNO Center for Society, Law and Justice, and Susan Howell, a political pollster and director of the UNO Survey Research Center, the Foundation concluded the majority-black city may soon have trouble keeping black cops:
"The high number of resignations (as distinct from retirements and dismissals) of NOPD officers crosses racial lines. The number of African-American officers has increased in each of the past four years and in 2002, for the first time, was substantially higher than the number of white officer resignations. Unless changes are made, it may become more and more difficult to retain qualified African-American officers in appropriate numbers."
And duplicating the heavy recruiting effort, spearheaded by former Mayor Marc Morial in the 1990s, is not a panacea for NOPD's problems today, according to the summary.
"The problem cannot be solved by more intense recruiting. Given current retention rates, the research indicates a tripling of the number of annual applicants for three straight years would be necessary to achieve the goal of 2,000 officers by 2007. This scenario is very unlikely.
"Even if this were possible, it would not be a permanent solution. Heavy recruiting in the late 1990s proved to be only a Band-Aid on a deeper problem. A significant percentage of officers from those recruiting classes have already left the department.
"The NOPD has become a revolving door and training resource for other (law enforcement) agencies. The vast majority of resignations every year are by young police officers with less than five years of service. Having been highly trained at significant expense, they leave to work for departments or agencies that offer better pay, consistent promotion opportunities and do not mandate where they live. Unless the underlying problems are fixed, the NOPD will continue to experience increasingly severe manpower challenges on a recurrent basis."
Aside from the Police Foundation summary, the study also offers chilling findings about New Orleans' murder rate: "Particularly alarming is homicide in New Orleans. New Orleans has consistently faced one of the highest homicide rates of any city in the United States. Over the last 10 years, more than 3,000 people have been murdered in the city. In 2002, New Orleans had the highest homicide rate among cities of 250,000 population or more."
Last year, the report continues, the city had a murder rate that was nearly 10 times higher than the national average. "For New Orleans to have a murder rate that is on par with New York City's, our city would have to record only 36 murders per year. This is 221 fewer murders than the 257 murders recorded in 2002. Also alarming is that murder in New Orleans is on the rise, registering increases every year since 1999."
If Nagin agrees with any part of the Police Foundation's admittedly "bleak picture," he did not tell the standing-room-only crowd of media, cops and public officials gathered in the mayor's press briefing room at City Hall on Jan. 8. Yet it cannot be said that he omitted the city's murder rate from his news conference. In his introductory remarks, the mayor initially mentioned the city's homicide problem, albeit briefly.
"You're going to hear some things that caused us to pause," Nagin said of the UNO study. He added: "The homicide rate ... is back at 1997 levels. So what that tells me is that we really did not fix the problem." (In fact, the study shows that the homicide rate for 2003, 56.5 murder victims per 100,000, is higher than the 54.7 per capita rate recorded in 1997.)
The matter of murders came up again near the end of the mayor's press conference. And the mayor would intervene when Chief Eddie Compass unloaded on the media for what Compass called its unbalanced coverage of NOPD's response to the city's homicide rates.
The chief's impatience with the media first became apparent when WWL-TV reporter Dave McNamara asked him about UNO pollster Susan Howell's survey of NOPD cops that found low morale on the force, then escalated when McNamara inquired how he was going to curb the homicide rate. (Howell called the NOPD climate "very poor," noting that 87 percent of officers describe morale as low.) McNamara later reminded Compass that when the chief first took office, he said he would improve morale in the department.
"You can do anything you want with numbers," Compass said of the study. "I'm not disrespecting the survey on morale. ... But the morale issue is about the promotional process, those type of things. It's not about working conditions, the officers' love of their job, and the leadership of this department. We have done more with less. We have basically done the impossible. We have spoiled you, to a certain extent. Because, if you were living anywhere else, without the leadership that you have here ... with this low amount of police officers, it would be chaos out there. We are doing miracles."
When asked if, in light of the First Police District's downgrading scandal, Compass would welcome annual outside audits of the department's statistics, the chief replied in the negative. "This is the first time the police department has ever investigated itself to that level," Compass said of the First District scandal. "I am telling you we are not hiding anything on this police department. ... I don't need an outside agency coming in. I think we have proven that we are capable of taking care of our own house and the numbers that we have given are true. And when we find out there is a discrepancy, we bring it forward."
NOPD's investigation of the First District scandal began two months after the private Metropolitan Crime Commission kicked off its own probe; Compass later invited the MCC oversight of NOPD's internal investigation, but has demurred on the crime commission's entreaties for a citywide probe. Annual outside audits of the department's statistics is a longstanding recommendation of the city Office of Municipal Investigation.
After City Councilmembers Oliver Thomas, Jackie Clarkson and Jay Batt each called for a community dialogue and action in response to the report, Compass and members of the media resumed their own exchange over the murder rate. "With the murder rate at 1997 levels ... in the short term, what can you tell the public about how that will be dealt with?" WWL's McNamara asked Compass.
"Well, basically, for the last six months, we have experienced a double-digit decrease," Compass said. "That's reality, but the perception is when [the public] looks at TV and they see the murder rate from the totality of the year, and it makes it look like it's a lot worse than it is."
The chief then noted that he saw a television news broadcast the previous day, in which the reporter allegedly said the city had "already" recorded a murder in the first week of the new year. "Well, we have had one murder in seven days," Compass said. "At that rate, we would have 50 in a year. Instead of saying, 'We only had one murder in the first week of the year; it looks like things are getting better,' the reporter said, 'We've already had a murder.' You see how perception becomes reality? ... In reality, we are down 83 percent in murders since the beginning of the year because we had seven at this time last year. Now we only have one."
Reminding reporters that his administration worked with U.S. Attorney Jim Letten and put together a 120-officer task force to suppress deadly gang wars during the first half of 2003, Compass blasted the media for failing to acknowledge the results of those efforts.
"When the murder rate was up 58 percent in April it was on TV and the front page every day. We cut the murder rate double-digits for the last six months and nobody is talking about it. And that's why the community is scared, because the truth is not getting out there. The perceptions are getting out there -- not the reality. You know what the reality is? We had one murder in seven days; we're down 83 percent (from last year). Put that on the front page of the paper."
A Gambit Weekly reporter, citing the UNO study, noted that if New Orleans had 50 murders in 2004, it would still be higher per capita than New York. What was the chief's plan to make New Orleans competitive with other cities in terms of reducing homicides?
Before the chief could respond, Nagin took the microphone. "If you go back and look at the history of the city, we have always ranked in the top five of murders per 1,000 residents," the mayor said. "So, that hasn't really changed. But what we are telling you today is that the current trends over the past six months and the trend of this current year is very positive. The work we have done with the federal government and Jim Letten is paying results. We're expecting to have a significant year as it relates to murders being down. If we get the 200 police officers that we need, we can guarantee you that this will be one of the safest communities in America."
A bloody bank robbery in Algiers the same morning as the report was released, coupled with the murder of a popular bar owner on the previous night, pushed the Foundation study out of the public spotlight.
On television screens citywide that night, the shaken widow of 67-year-old bar owner Emmett Sindik said softly, "Crime in New Orleans is getting out of control."
Most reporters took the "poor morale" angle of the police study. The Times-Picayune's story appeared Jan. 9 under the headline: "Study finds low morale at NOPD." Buried inside the Metro section, the story began: "The New Orleans Police Department has a serious morale problem fueled by low pay, a requirement that officers live within the city limits and a failure of the department to live up to promotion promises." The T-P story noted other findings in the police study, which updated new trends on three well-worn factors contributing to the shrinking NOPD -- poor pay, an inconsistent promotional system and the hotly debated city residency requirement. The daily paper also pursued a fourth remedy that the mayor unexpectedly tossed out in the waning moments of the press conference -- combining the offices of the two local parish sheriffs to provide more cops for NOPD. (The mayor's proposal, which was not a recommendation of the Police Foundation report, has not generated much public support since then.)
At the news conference, Police Foundation Chairman John Casbon said the police morale problems facing Nagin and Compass are "inherited" from the Morial administration. For example, Capt. Marlon Defillo says 496 non-ranking officers are expected to receive a total of $1.2 million in long-awaited promotional pay increases, effective March 1.
"We're going to dedicate some money to promotions," Nagin said. "We're going to keep it as a budget priority on an ongoing basis ... so police officers can see that there is a career path here."
Nagin said that he solved the problem of poor police pay by sharply reducing a strict overtime formula and instituting back-to-back pay raises for cops, the latest of which (a $2,000 pay hike) takes effect in July 2004. By then, NOPD's annual starting salary will be within $600 of the Kenner Police Department, which offers the highest pay for cops in the state. Kenner recently raised its starting salary to $36,165, which is currently $2,609 more than what is offered by NOPD.
In addition, the city has pledged to increase the force by 75 police officers this year, which would raise the number of officers to 1,685. Even then, however, the NOPD would still be short of the 2,000-officer goal proposed by Nagin when he entered office in May 2002.
The UNO survey found that 75 percent of NOPD cops say that pay and benefits would be a key reason they would consider leaving the force; 89 percent said increasing pay and benefits was "the number one or two goal for NOPD in terms of improving their own job satisfaction."
The Police Foundation and city officials all say they want to make the NOPD competitive with other law enforcement agencies. However, nationwide competition for police salaries is fierce. The stakes are constantly being raised. Indeed, Compass may expect hiring raids from two former NOPD commanders -- Atlanta Police Superintendent Richard Pennington and new Nashville Chief of Police Ronal Serpas.
Meanwhile, a contentious debate is expected over the Police Foundation's proposal to abolish the city's residency requirement.
"While based on a reasonable philosophic premise, the residency requirement is not practical," according to the Foundation's summary. "The requirement places New Orleans at a competitive disadvantage and effectively eliminates two-thirds of the local labor force from consideration (for NOPD jobs)."
Nagin and Compass both say they are neutral on the residency issue. And, sources say, while the study shows majorities of both cops and the public now support relaxing the rule, some UNO researchers have privately expressed concerns that proponents may be overstating the rule's impact on the labor pool. Pay, they argue, is the predominant issue.
"One of the things we're going to have to debate is can we find 4,000 new applicants in Orleans Parish," Nagin said. The UNO study shows that for every 100 applicants that apply, 12 become cops. To reach Nagin's goal of 2,000 officers, the NOPD will have to screen 4,000 applicants.
At one point in the news conference, Casbon reflected the business community's occasional frustration with the constant attention required of the Police Department. "We're going to try hard to make sure that NOPD is not just duct-taped together any longer, that we fix it forever," Casbon said. "Because we need to move on."