Police Superintendent Michael Harrison stood before a room of his top commanders, a sea of white shirts on a late October morning eight days into the job, to persuade them to help him recruit new officers. An incentive program would pay cops $1,000 for each new employee they bring on board.
“Informants don’t count,” he said.
The officers laughed, and some leaned back in their seats, smiling. It was a light moment of humor over one of the heaviest problems facing the New Orleans Police Department — a problem Harrison knows intimately.
The New Orleans Police Department has shrunk by a third since 2010 and is losing roughly one cop every three days. Harrison became chief after two years commanding eastern New Orleans, where he dealt firsthand with the difficulties of trying to fight crime in one of America’s most murderous cities as fewer and fewer officers show up to roll calls.
New NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison talks about recruitment challenges and anti-violence initiatives as the understaffed department tries to combat rising crime rates.
Born in New Orleans in 1969, Harrison, who speaks in a low drawl and has a salt and pepper buzz cut, is the city’s top cop, but also a military veteran, a minister and a professor. Though he has a tough job, he has the soft face and warm chuckle of a father.
And while his joke to the commanders might have been a brief moment of levity, members of police associations, who were often critical of the last chief, say it reflects the more upbeat environment officers have experienced since Harrison took over as interim chief in August and the mayor made it official on Oct. 14.
Still, the NOPD’s staffing shortage hangs like a dark cloud over efforts at recruiting, improving morale and retaining officers. It is clearly his toughest challenge, especially amid spikes in most major crimes.
In a recent interview, Harrison laid out his plans to continue targeting the city’s gangs and reducing the crime and murder rate. He also pledged to improve community-police relations and comply with a federal court-ordered overhaul. All those initiatives, however, hinge on the department having enough people to do the specialty work and still perform its most basic duty: responding to emergency calls in a timely manner.
“That’s a delicate balance that we have to work through going forward,” Harrison said.
Since taking over after Ronal Serpas’ abrupt retirement, Harrison has met with neighborhood and church groups — he’s a minister at City of Love Church — and made an effort to listen to their complaints, as well as those of cops. Through forging new relationships and repairing broken ones with various communities, he said, he plans to turn around the image of the department, which has often been seen as dysfunctional, unprofessional and corrupt.
Members of the rank and file largely welcomed the change in leadership from Serpas, 54, who was seen as “autocratic,” said Donovan Livaccari, spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge. Serpas, who had served as police chief in Nashville and over Washington State Patrol, had a vision for the NOPD that “didn’t necessarily include a whole lot of input from anybody besides Serpas,” he said.
By contrast, Harrison, 45, has never led a department. A former National Guard sergeant, Harrison joined the NOPD in 1991 and rose steadily through the ranks, investigating drug traffickers and later supervising officers in the French Quarter. After that, he oversaw internal investigations.
Since taking office, Harrison has reshuffled the command staff. He swapped the number-two deputy chief Darryl Albert, who had been at headquarters overseeing investigations for years, for Robert Bardy, who commanded the 6th District covering Central City, a neighborhood plagued by violence and drug dealers. While it’s too early to determine how his changes in leadership will play out, Livaccari said Harrison has widened the inner circle around the superintendent.
“I think he’s a lot more sensitive to what’s going on in the department with respect to the cops themselves,” said Capt. Michael Glasser, the president of the Police Association of New Orleans. “I don’t expect he’ll be able to solve the problems overnight, but then again, the problems weren’t created overnight.”
Harrison, too, urges patience, saying it could take years to grow the force. He emphasized that the department has already come a long way from when Mayor Mitch Landrieu took office in 2010, and the city was broke. Landrieu froze hiring and instituted furloughs for all city employees that amounted to a 10 percent pay cut.
The department began hiring again last year, but because its application infrastructure had been dormant for three years, Harrison said, the screening process has been sluggish. Also, many applicants were not qualified.
The administration’s goal of hiring 150 new officers this year appears to be falling short. There are 55 recruits in the training academy now, but more than 103 cops have left the department so far this year. And it could get worse: Livaccari said he knows of 15 NOPD officers who have pending applications to join the State Police.
Meanwhile, the force has shrunk to about 1,090 — far from the 1,600 the mayor and Harrison say the city needs. Some who left for other law enforcement agencies said they did so because of low morale, poor equipment and the city’s changes to their off-duty details that they say hurt their ability to supplement their salaries.
To shore up more officers for patrol, Harrison is proposing to hire 22 civilians to replace officers currently doing administrative work. The city’s Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux released a report in May urging the NOPD to move up to to 264 additional officers to street patrols to meet the city’s emergency needs, filling many of the jobs with civilians.
Harrison said he hopes to dissuade more officers from quitting by providing them with career development opportunities, new cars, better equipment and, in some cases, recently renovated police stations. That improved morale among his officers, he said, when he became commander of the 7th District in eastern New Orleans, which had just opened a new police station.
He also is supporting the mayor’s proposal for a 5 percent pay raise. He knows that officers complain that the 5 percent is not enough because they have not received a pay raise since 2007. The Civil Service department recently found the NOPD lags about 20 percent behind the average southeast U.S. city. Police unions have called for a 30-percent raise.
But Harrison has urged the officers to understand how far the city has come, and to find personal fulfillment in helping people, not just receiving their paychecks.
In a city where at least five police officers have been shot in the past two years and one killed by a hit-and-run driver, Livaccari said it’s demoralizing for cops to show up to work and see only one or two others on patrol with them. They know they won’t have the same level of backup as in past years, when 15 people would be on patrol at a time in a district, he said.
Cops often start their shift with a backlog of 30 or 40 emergency calls, leaving citizens waiting hours for the police to show up. Officers spend their entire shift rushing from call to call, with no time to eat, and they are frustrated with not being able to provide the level of services that they want, he said.
A recent anonymous survey of nearly half the department by federal court monitors found that a majority of officers feel they would not be satisfied with police services if they lived in their district. And more than half described police services in the city as either fair or poor.
Harrison said he was dismayed to read that and hoped to get the message to all officers to think while they’re responding to calls: “How would I deliver services to me?”
He knows especially well the pressures afflicting street cops, having been commander over the 7th District in eastern New Orleans, where manpower issues are acute. As the city’s largest police district — a hundred-square mile land mass — with pockets of relentless violence, the 7th has officers running call to call and citizens suffering the longest wait times after calling 911.
Not only has the reduction depleted morale and caused 911 response times to lengthen, Harrison said, but it has also emboldened criminals who have noticed the lack of police on the streets and taken advantage.
Most major crimes up in New Orleans
Crime First half 2013 First half 2014 Change
Armed robbery 350 479 37%
Simple robbery 173 234 35%
Assault 755 987 31%
Rape 78 98 25%
Auto theft 994 1,209 22%
Theft 4,384 5,056 15%
Burglary 1,580 1,636 4%
Murder 77 71 -8%
Armed robberies and property crimes have jumped this year, Harrison said, calling the rise “a direct correlation to our shrinkage.”
Harrison said he doesn’t have enough police to maintain the level of visibility that
prevents those so-called crimes of opportunity. He could, he said, but he also has to juggle that pressure with the need to solve murders and build cases against gangs and groups who he says commit a disproportionate share of the city’s violent crime.
“Getting our murder rate down is our highest priority,” he said, adding that he also wants to focus efforts on all shootings, whether the victim survived or not. “We’re at a 30-year low in murder, but it’s still too high.”
The low staffing is also something Harrison has to reconcile with academic theories of policing. Harrison, who has a master’s degree from Loyola and teaches criminal justice at the University of Phoenix, said he sees validity in the “broken windows” theory that has been credited with driving crime down in New York City. The theory goes that if authorities crack down on small offenses, it creates a general sense of order that eventually prevents more serious crimes from occurring. But Harrison said he doesn’t have enough people.
“While I believe in it as an academic, practically we have to make sure that we’re efficient and effective in the way we deploy our resources,” he said. “Murder is our highest priority, and broken windows theory doesn’t always directly connect to murder. It’s very indirect. It’s a long process. So there are things we have to do now.”
One of Harrison’s first celebrated moves internally was to allow district commanders more flexibility in deploying their officers, the police associations said.
Harrison also directed four of his top-ranking supervisors to improve the department’s Comstat system after researching how other departments nationwide conduct their meetings. (The Comstat model, based on computer statistics, focuses on weekly reported crimes and compares them to previous weeks and years.) He said the new system is more efficient than the old one; meetings last only about 90 minutes now, down from four hours.
Critics have said the Comstat meetings put pressure on cops and supervisors to make any arrest, even relatively minor ones, as opposed to focusing on the more serious offenses. But Harrison said he is pushing the department to concentrate on bigger-picture crime trends and how to combat them, and whether efforts are working, not individual arrest statistics. Glasser, the PANO president, agreed that he has seen that change and commended Harrison for making it.
Harrison said he plans to crack down on the rising property crimes and robberies by directing his officers to be proactive in stopping and questioning suspicious-looking cars or people.
“If our officers do a better job of explaining the reason for the stop … I think a lot of people will use that word harassment a little less.”
But he never wants high-crime neighborhoods to feel like the police are harassing them, as some groups have complained. Like his predecessor, Harrison preaches officers to communicate better with people who they stop and frisk.
“If our officers do a better job of explaining the reason for the stop and the reason why they’re doing what they’re doing, I think a lot of people will use that word harassment a little less,” Harrison said.
The city’s civilian Office of the Independent Police Monitor urged Harrison to focus on reforming the long troubled department, which has a history of civil rights violations.
“Complying with the Constitution needs to be the biggest priority,” said Ursula Price, a spokeswoman for the office.
Harrison said he wants to bolster community-policing efforts, such as more foot patrols and neighborhood meetings held by officers and supervisors, so that residents build trust and start to feel comfortable with the police. Eventually they will be more likely to share information about crime if there’s a good relationship there, he said.
But all that takes time. Community policing “is not in the absence of traditional police work,” he said. “It’s in addition to police work.”
In juggling the heavy load of community policing, strategic gang and murder investigations, statistics analysis and emergency response amid short-staffing, Harrison did right to reach out to officers and let them know he’s on their side, said one union leader.
“It’s a lot to do,” said Capt. Simon Hargrove, the president of the NOPD’s Black Organization of Police. “Those are things we all want, but you can’t get those things accomplished without the men and women getting behind you and doing the heavy lifting.”