Last week, Mayor Mitch Landrieu — flanked by New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas and City Council members — announced Phase 2 of the city's ongoing NOPD recruitment program. "Get Behind the Badge" was launched last summer as an attempt to bolster the number of cops on the force, which at last count was 1,139 — far from the goal of 1,600 cops the Police Department, city leaders and citizens would like to see on the streets.
The latest recruitment push comes with a $300,000 allocation approved by the City Council, along with a $300,000 match by the New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation. Among the initiatives undertaken: a "one-stop application day" on Aug. 9 for people interested in joining the force; a day of outreach to local churches for applicants on Aug. 28; and new commercials and web ads designed to promote NOPD as a good place to work. The city now also has a thorough online application, along with supplemental materials, at www.joinnopd.org. Serpas says the number of applications has gone up significantly in recent months.
Landrieu, Serpas and the council are trying to put a good face on the latest recruitment efforts, but staffing levels at NOPD — not to mention morale — have been in free fall for years, and previous attempts to slow the rate at which cops are leaving the force (much less turn the tide) have produced few results.
The reasons for such a precipitous drop in the number of NOPD officers vary. For starters, the city was in dire financial shape at the end of former Mayor Ray Nagin's tenure, and the hiring freeze that Landrieu implemented in 2010 was only rescinded in 2013. Consequently, hundreds of cops who left the force during the three-year hiring freeze weren't replaced. The first Police Academy class in years graduated last November, adding 27 officers, and a second is on the way. Given the urgent need for more cops, the City Council recently relaxed the controversial domicile rule that once required officers to live in Orleans Parish, but that will take time to have an impact.
Concerns about the number of officers have taken on new urgency in the wake of last month's Bourbon Street shootings, which injured nine people and killed Brittany Thomas, a Hammond resident and bystander. Meanwhile, a series of brazen thefts and robberies in the Faubourg Marigny gave rise to claims of inadequate levels of protection there. Other neighborhoods lodge similar complaints. Over the Fourth of July weekend, the city got help from Louisiana State Police. That's a temporary fix (through Labor Day), however. Landrieu had asked the governor to send 100 state troopers to New Orleans permanently.
We've been here before, but things seem worse now than in prior years. In 2008, then-Police Chief Warren Riley and Nagin announced their own recruitment effort. NOPD at that time had been hit hard by Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. Before the storm, the department had nearly 1,700 officers. Today it has fewer than 1,200.
There's room for hope with the latest campaign, but there's also room for healthy doubt. The Landrieu and Serpas initiatives are not, at least on paper, much different than those proposed by Nagin and Riley. Moreover, even discounting the impact of the hiring freeze, the number of officers who have left on Serpas' watch is staggering. Morale has to be a factor.
A 2010 survey of officers by Tulane University, commissioned by the Police Association of New Orleans, found that 49 percent of officers agreed with the statement, "I look forward to coming to work every day," while 26 percent disagreed. Two years later, the numbers virtually had flipped: only 23 percent agreed with that statement, while 58 percent disagreed. Worse, a huge majority disagreed with Serpas' crime-fighting methods. For example, 88 percent disagreed with the statement, "The policies implemented under the current superintendent ... have made the NOPD a more effective crime prevention and public safety organization." And 97 percent thought the department was understaffed. On that point, everyone seems to agree.
On a related front, New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux issued a report in May that found the NOPD's staff of what was then 1,149 officers was both insufficient and inefficient. Among Quatrevaux's recommendations: putting every sworn cop back on a beat and using non-sworn (civilian) staff for tasks such as desk duty. According to Quatrevaux's calculations, 102 officers could be redeployed by using more civilian employees.
Overall, NOPD's staffing problems extend beyond recruiting. The mayor and the chief should focus on retention and redeployment as well.