NEW ORLEANS - Boosting the diminishing number of New Orleans police officers was a major issue during the recent mayoral race, with challenger Michael Bagneris promising 400 new hires in 2014, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu setting a goal of 150.
But with the new year underway after Landrieu’s easy re-election, it appears that his campaign promise may be difficult to achieve, even though the city has already budgeted for the increase.
With March coming to a close, there has been no academy class for new recruits and no date has been set to start one.
Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said 21 applicants have been hired to make up the new recruiting class, but the academy will not crank up until there are at least 30 approved candidates.
The slow pace of hiring can’t be blamed on a lack of applicants.
In the fall, the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation helped the city launch a major recruiting drive with a website and online application process.
Foundation Director Melanie Talia said the website has generated a record number of applicants over such a short period of time, more than 1,100 since Thanksgiving.
But translating those applicants into recruits is a slow process. After rigorous screening and multiple Civil Service tests, only about 10 percent of applicants ultimately qualify to join the force.
"I'm not saying it's going to be easy,” Talia said. “There's going to be a challenge to it, but they're scheduled to start an academy class in spring, which I realize is just a few days away, but that will be a class of about 30 people."
While hiring is behind schedule, Talia said she is encouraged by the number and geographic range of applicants.
"We are getting applications from around the country,” she said. “Now the vast majority are from the greater New Orleans area. New Orleans proper, Metairie, St. Tammany, Mandeville. Then immediately after that, it's Texas, followed by Oklahoma. We’re also getting a lot of interest from New York and Chicago."
But Capt. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, points out that the continued slow pace of hiring is putting even more pressure on a department suffering through a modern-era low in troop strength.
While the city has a long-term goal of 1,600 officers, the number is now down to 1,170. That includes more than 20 officers who have left so far in 2014.
"Budgeting for 150 and hiring 150 are two different things," Glasser said. "The goal is not reachable. Clearly we're not able to hire in the numbers that were expected or anticipated or hoped for."
Glasser also noted the length of time it takes before a recruit to become a full-fledged street cop. With six months in the academy and four months of field training, it takes a full 10 months before new hires are assigned as independent patrol officers.
That means none of the officers hired this year will contribute in 2014.
Serpas acknowledged the challenge, but said accelerated hiring should help pick up the pace.
He said Civil Service is now conducting several screening tests for applicants each month instead of just one. Also, the department is prepared to hold overlapping academy classes if the hiring accelerates.
But even if the numbers fall short of 150 for the year, Serpas said he said he will never trade quality for quantity.
"I have never been, nor will I ever be, a police chief that rushes to fill a number as opposed to getting the quality of the candidates we need," he said.
Serpas also said he also hopes to be helped by a new recruiting policy that grants fast-track hiring to military veterans.
Anyone who is interested in applying to the NOPD can click on JoinNOPD.org.