NEW ORLEANS — Shaken by rising violent crime rates, viral images of gun-toting youth attacking a lonely police car, and a police force that may have dipped below 1,000 officers for the first time in modern history, the New Orleans City Council voted Thursday to nearly double its budget for police recruitment.
The city started hemorrhaging officers a decade ago when then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu imposed a two-year hiring freeze.
Since then, efforts to replenish a force of nearly 1,600 have fallen short and couldn’t keep pace with a rising tide of departures to other law enforcement agencies.
Plummeting morale has sped up the rate of attrition in recent years and the force is now depleted by a third.
The city is losing about 100 officers a year to retirement and resignation, around 10 percent of the current force of 989, according to City Council President Helena Moreno.
“You cannot operate a department that's made for roughly 1,400 officers when it has less than a thousand,” Moreno said.
NOPD spokesman Gary Scheets disputed Moreno’s count Thursday evening, saying the force still has more than 1,000 officers, although he declined to give a precise number of active officers not on long-term leave or suspension.
The council voted unanimously Thursday to raise the amount it pays to the New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation to run NOPD recruitment, from $500,000 a year to $900,000.
“The increase in the amount of funding allocated for recruitment and retention is a welcomed addition to the ongoing efforts to hire and retain officers for NOPD,” Scheets said. “We thank the Council for their continued dedication and commitment to the NOPD and our city.”
Melanie Talia, the president of the foundation and a former Orleans Parish prosecutor, said the city’s goal is to hire 88 new officers this year, but the year’s first recruiting class at the academy, which began in March, only has 18 prospective officers.
She says the problem isn’t with finding interested applicants, it’s with getting them through the application process.
“There's no shortage of interest in joining the New Orleans Police Department. We get on average 200 to 300 applications a month,” she said.
The real issue is getting applicants to sit for the city's civil service exam, which they must pass to start at the academy. The exam is now only offered in person and only in New Orleans, Talia said.
She said the foundation is working to hire a remote testing company to make the tests available to applicants online, anywhere in the world.
She expects that will have a significant impact on the size of NOPD recruiting classes, getting more prospective officers into the training process that takes about six months to complete.
But City Councilman Oliver Thomas is concerned the situation is too dire to wait for that to take effect.
He said more must be done immediately to bring back applicants who may have been rejected for having minor infractions, such as marijuana possession charges, on their record.
“I think we're at a point now where we need to go back to some of those people, put a call out, see if we can fix that minor thing that stopped them from being accepted into the recruit class,” he said.
Without significant changes right away, Thomas says the city could be forced to call in the National Guard for help.
Moreno said there are six steps the NOPD should take to increase the number of officers available to respond to calls for service, short of calling for outside help.
- Reorganizing and redeploying the current force by consolidating detectives and possibly even the 2nd and 6th districts Uptown to reduce administrative duties and increase patrols.
- Requesting Louisiana State Police to respond to accidents on highways inside the city
- Hiring civilians to take police reports on property crimes
- Better advertising of the city’s online police reporting process
- Allowing officers from other police departments to transfer to NOPD without going through the full 1,100-hour academy training
- Expanding to the whole city the Crisis Response Team, which is now a pilot program in one district for responding to mental health and substance abuse calls