NEW ORLEANS -- The past week has been full of pomp and circumstance for the New Orleans Police Department.
Last Friday, 28 police recruits were honored in white gloves ceremony as they graduated from the academy to begin their field training. Then, on Monday, 39 newly minted recruits were proudly announced as Class No. 176, the largest since Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office.
But a hard look at the NOPD recruiting and hiring numbers shows that, despite a week of positive developments, Landrieu and the city face daunting challenges in keeping hiring promises made over the past two years.
At the end of last year, Landrieu vowed to rebuild the force back to the nearly 1,600 officers he inherited, replenishing troops decimated by the 2010 budget crisis he inherited. The remedy, Landrieu’s two-year hiring freeze, dropped the NOPD ranks by more than 400 officers, to a 40-year low of fewer than 1,150.
In 2014, and again in 2015, Landrieu promised to add 150 new officers to the force. In the end, the city fell short both years. In 2014, there were two classes with 64 recruits. In 2015, a much better year with four academy classes, there were still only 129 total recruits.
But coming up short for two straight years hasn’t kept Landrieu from doubling down on his hiring promises. Along with NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison, Landrieu again vowed to hire 150 recruits in 2016, all part of a plan to reach a troop strength of 1,600 officers by 2020.
Count Capt. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, as a skeptic.
“I don't see that as an attainable goal at this juncture,” said Glasser, a frequent critic of City Hall’s efforts to boost the NOPD. “We can't hit 1,200. So the chances of us getting to 1,600 or 1,700 or even 1,500 are remote at the rate we're going.”
Glasser said that without some dramatic development, the pace of hiring can't be accelerated – and then maintained for several years – to meet the city's goals.
Glasser projected that the department will be hard-pressed to meet its 2016 goal of hiring 150 new recruits, and the numbers so far show that the city has a lot of catching up to do to make that number.
With yesterday's introduction of 39 new recruits, the department is only up 11 officers for the year, from 1,154 to 1,165 officers. A big part of that equation is the loss of 28 cops to retirement, resignation or dismissal.
Glasser points out that the attrition, averaging more than 100 officers a year, makes the goal of 1,600 look remote.
“We can hire 150, but if we lose 150 we break even,” Glasser said. “And the problem is we've done nothing to stop the attrition. So while we fill the bucket at the top, we're not plugging the hole at the bottom.”
Glasser is also quick to point out that despite this year’s net gain of 11 officers in troop strength, the new recruits are not answering calls for service, while the 28 cops who left nearly all seasoned veterans. So even though the NOPD is slightly better staffed on paper, the street force is actually more thinly stretched than before.
There are initiatives in the works to boost the ranks.
Melanie Talia, director of the non-profit New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, said her group is about to launch a nationwide recruiting campaign. A successful campaign is certain to boost the applicant pool, but Talia did not have specifics on how more applicants could speed hiring, expand academy class sizes, or slow attrition.
“The hiring does have to accelerate, absolutely,” she said.
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison said the key to growing the department more quickly is not only to expand the recruiting pipeline, but also expand the academy to produce more officers.
“We can do larger classes,” he said. “And so we have spoken to the consent decree monitor and the judge and explained the need to provide public safety to the citizens. Bring people in faster.”
Harrison is referring to a cap on police academy class size under the federal consent decree. And he's right. Federal Judge Susie Morgan, who oversees the NOPD consent decree to reform the department, gave approval to expand the Monday’s class to 39 recruits, up from classes of 30 to 34 since 2010.
Harrison said he is confident that Morgan would go even higher. But this push comes at a time when there is a shortage of officers nationwide, with depleted departments from coast-to-coast struggling to fill vacancies.
“The department is definitely behind the goal, and it's important to know that this is a very difficult environment to be recruiting in, nationally and locally,” said WWL-TV data analyst Jeff Asher.
Asher crunched the numbers using the recent hiring rate of about three percent, which reflects the percent of all applicants to the NOPD who ultimately become commissioned officers, passing the necessary screening, academy training and field training.
According to Asher’s statistics, to build the force to 1,600 by 2020, it would take a significant increase in the average number of applicants – about 60 percent higher – to meet that goal. So while the city received about 5,000 applications last year, that number would have to increase to 8,000 every single year to until 2020 for the department to reach the magic number of 1,600.
“It's a daunting number of applications that ultimately you would need in order to sustain that level of recruitment, and at a time when police departments around the country just aren't growing,” Asher said.
There are other hurdles to expanding the department. The rejection by voters of the police and fire millage proposal in April means there won't be extra money for the effort. And the police academy saw its commander replaced last week at a time when there are already several vacancies for instructors.
But Chief Harrison is nothing if not an optimist. He said he works on the hiring challenge every day, and pledges to do everything in his power, starting with hitting the hiring mark of 150 new officers this year.
“You're correct, all of us (police departments) are facing shortages,” Harrison said. “All of us are attempting to recruit the best and the brightest. But when you look at police departments across the country, you don't find police departments that are making sweeping reforms like New Orleans.”
So how is Harrison so confident after two straight years of failing to meet the city’s hiring goals for the NOPD?
“I'm not negative,” he said. “So you're not going to get that from me. You're only going to get positive. I'm never going to say what I can't do. I'm only going to tell you what I will do.”