NEW ORLEANS — Three years ago, Gallier Hall was the setting for a grand ceremony announcing a new way of selecting the best and brightest within the New Orleans Police Department. The new Civil Service-sanctioned position of “commander” was created and 16 officers were named to the fast-track leadership posts.
Now the Police Association of New Orleans is protesting the system as “abusive, unconstitutional, demoralizing and undermining.”
That’s the language used by PANO in grievances filed in two separate petitions protesting the policy and demanding that Civil Service reinstate the objective testing-and-promotion system for captains and majors.
For lieutenants aspiring to be captains, no such testing has taken place since Superintendent Ronal Serpas took over the department four years ago. For captains seeking the rank of major, no testing has taken place since the early 1990s.
“Basically, what the Superintendent wants to do is promote and demote at will without the criteria that civil service establishes,” PANO President Michael Glasser said. “They (commanders) are being appointed at will at the whim and will of the superintendent. And that's demoralizing. If you're not one of those people, how do you get to be one of those people?”
The lack of promotions comes at a time when the NOPD troop strength is at a modern-day low of about 1,170 officers with more officers leaving each week. Some of the recent departures have come from the ranks of veteran lieutenants and captains who feel they have hit a career ceiling, Glasser said.
“They know their careers are essentially over if they can't have the opportunity to move up the ranks in the fashion that civil service has designed,” Glasser said. “The administration clearly is not interested in getting a captain's examination for the position. It's supposed to be a merit system based on qualifications, not based on who you know.”
Under the new system introduced by Serpas, any officer ranked lieutenant or higher can be tapped for the “commander” position. Serpas has dipped into this hand-selected group for most of the juiciest leadership assignments in the department, including commanders of the eight police districts.
The policy also allows Serpas to remove commanders from that position at will and, more significantly, without any civil service appeals process.
Glasser said the new system is a morale buster that is helping to fuel departures among the dwindling numbers of longtime ranking officers. He said the number of captains on the force is down from 40 five years ago to about 20 today. Majors, who have always existed in much smaller numbers, are down from five in the 1990s to one today.
Backlogs for promotions to sergeant and lieutenant were recently broken when the city budgeted for civil service testing for those lower-ranking posts during 2014.
But PANO attorney Eric Hessler said that without a resumption of testing at the higher ranks, more veteran officers will consider retiring or looking for position elsewhere.
"They're contemplating leaving because their ability to rise to higher levels is curtailed if there isn't competitive testing," Hessler said. “They've got to see that they can rise through the ranks on merit as opposed to political appointments or favoritism.”
Based on Serpas’ track record, Hessler said he believes that the current administration has no interest in using Civil Service to find new top-ranking commanders.
“It's been made clear through recent history that the superintendent doesn't want those positions to exist,” Hessler said.
The NOPD has not responded to our requests for comment.