NEW ORLEANS -- Roz Weinstein lives in Uptown New Orleans just outside the border of a security district. She sees private patrols pass by often, and once in awhile, New Orleans Police Department cruisers.
Like her neighbors, she is worried about crime, and the NOPD's ability to patrol her street.
"The city needs more cops,” she said. “I feel like, we are understaffed. I'd like to see more police cars."
And that's before she learned that on most nights, just a handful of cops, sometimes as few as three, are on active patrol in her sprawling police district.
“I can't believe it,” she said. “I thought it was way more than that."
Records obtained by Eyewitness Investigates show that dwindling staffing means few cops are on patrol each night in the NOPD's eight districts.
On a Saturday night in late September, four patrol cars were covering the entire 100-square-mile Seventh District in eastern New Orleans. That scenario happened several times.
And the numbers are just as low, sometimes lower, in the Eighth District, which covers the French Quarter.
These staff numbers – the lowest in the NOPD since 1973 – mean slower response times and fewer officers for community policing. Meanwhile some non-emergency calls go unanswered for hours.
The local Fraternal Order of Police lodge considers the situation a crisis.
“These numbers do not reflect an adequate staffing for the citizens of New Orleans,” said FOP Attorney Raymond Burkart III. “Plus the special events that are coming through. … I see a safety issue. I see a problem."
On average, five officers patrol the streets in each district during the daytime and overnight shifts. And six officers work the afternoon and evening shifts. And usually an addition officer works at the station through these shifts.
"There is more people assigned to the district than this,” said Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas. “This is what comes to work after days off, after training days, after vacation if it’s approved, and for those people who are sick."
There are other officers on duty, like detectives, or cops detailed to special beats. But they don’t answer service calls, respond to emergencies or 911 calls. Each of the districts has pro-active task forces that work hours of high crime and demand. And they are available for back-up on an as-needed basis.
Police spokeswoman Remi Braden also noted that the Special Operations Divison has tactical squads that are sent into hot spots, based on crime trends and analysis.
“If an unexpected shortage of officers occur on a patrol shift,” Braden wrote in an e-mail, then higher-ups can dispatch these officers to that area.
Still, some calls are going unanswered, while it takes hours to respond to other, less urgent calls.
“The truth is the truth,” Serpas said. “We have the officers in the field that we can staff. It’s a simple matter of what we can staff.”
And people are waiting. Currently, the average response time for an emergency call is about 10 minutes, Serpas said.
Is he happy with that?
“No, of course not,” Serpas said. “I wish we could get there in two or three minutes. But that's a matter of how many people of are on the ground. That's a matter of how many people are working."
Considering the workload, the number of officers on patrol is even lower, said Eric Hessler, attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans. When an officer arrests someone, they must transport that person to lock-up, fill out paperwork and more. That takes time and means they aren’t on patrol, Hessler said.
“If you make an arrest, that officer is tied up for at least the next hour, regardless of what kind of arrest it is,” Hessler said.
Also, cops are responsible for writing and filing police reports during their shift. That means even fewer police on patrol, Hessler added.
“They’ve been trying to juggle all these balls in the air, and now they are falling to the ground,” he said of the NOPD.
Serpas said he is looking into ways to better manage the issue. One possible avenue is a system in which the department can take reports of minor crimes over the phone, without having to go to a particular scene.
The superintendent estimated that roughly 98 percent of all calls to police aren’t related to a violent crime.
“I don’t get to equivocate, I don’t get to whine and cry about that, I don’t get to point fingers,” Serpas said. “That’s a simple reality of our budgets. We got to work through it. Yes. It means we are not going to be as fast as we used to be.”
Burkart, the FOP attorneys, said that marking it worse, is the fact that most officers are alone, without any back-up.
“I think people understand that we need more police on the street. I just don’t think they understand how incredibly low our staffing levels are and the danger that presents to our public and to our visitors.”
Burkart pointed to the recent case of an officer who was injured while responding to a domestic disturbance call. Officer Brittany Marigny was working alone at the time. The NOPD said a 25-year-old man hit Marigny several times and struck her with a Taser.
Burkart said a patrol partner certainly would have made a difference in this case.
Currently the NOPD is at its lowest size since 1973. After Katrina, the staff increased slightly upon a hiring burst, but has shrunk steadily since.
And since May 2010, the department has lost 260 cops.
The city boasted of a single recruit class of 30 rookies earlier this year. Half of them were paid through a federal grant, and their hiring only stemmed roughly three months of losses.
The ranks now hover around 1,280 sworn officers. And that number is dropping. Next year, the NOPD is budgeted for 1,260 cops.
Previous chiefs aimed for 1,700 officers. Serpas once shot for nearly 1,600. But few believe that’s possible.
“Officers are leaving for a lot of reasons,” said Hessler, of the Police Association of New Orleans. “Job satisfaction is the primary issue. They are not pleased with the working conditions, the lack of resources and support. I’m talking about good officers, ones that want to make a difference and get things done. Morale is at an all-time low.”
Meanwhile, many citizens have put their faith in security districts, which have bulked up significantly in size. On any given night, you’ll find more security officers and off-duty NOPD cops on the streets than those on active patrol.
“Nobody is trusting government to protect them,” said Peter Scharf, a criminologist and professor at Tulane University. “And it’s another version of mistrust or fear that the government can’t save you.”
Jim Sehulster, a retired U.S. Marine colonel who previously worked at the University of New Orleans Center for Society, Law and Justice, said the issue boils down to boots on the street.
"The crime problem has got to be addressed. And the only way I see doing that is by deploying more assets to address the problem,” he said.
What is the impact of fewer cops?
Say goodbye to community policing and forget about a broken windows approach to law enforcement. With the radio squawking with non-stop service calls, cops can’t respond to minor quality of life issues, nor spend quality time embedded in communities.
Serpas acknowledged that these approaches are incredibly difficult to do with a limited staff.
“If I could do what I had freedom to do, I would have 1,575 police officers,” Serpas said. “And those 1,575 police officers would give me a great opportunity to do community policing across the whole department because we would have some time in the day for every officer to do it. That 1,575 would give me enough people to have a dedicated unit to the tourist area of our community beyond the Eighth district that is there today.”
Earlier this week, Mayor Mitch Landrieu unveiled a proposed budget with an increase for the NOPD. Other city money will go to new vehicles, as well as costs associated with the pending federal consent decree. Landrieu said if the department gets below its budgeted 1260 officers, he'll start a new recruit class.
The NOPD may sink to 1,260 sworn officers before the proposed budget is even passed.