Mayor Mitch Landrieu and New Orleans police Superintendent Michael Harrison tried to assuage citizens’ mounting frustration with rising crime and a shrinking police force Monday (Jan. 12) as a new class of 30 recruits began training at the NOPD’s academy.
“Public safety is our No. 1 priority in the City of New Orleans,” Landrieu said. “We’re committed to ensure that every neighborhood in the city is safe. We’re committed to hiring more officers and to making sure we get the job done. … We have gotten ourselves out of more difficult circumstances than we’re in today, and I feel fully confident we’ll be able to do the same.”
Members of NOPD recruit class No. 172 won’t finish their 26-week training and graduate as commissioned rookie officers until mid-July. But their chief told them just how much their presence is anticipated and appreciated by a department hoping to rebuild to 1,600 officers after dwindling to 1,156 as of Monday.
“You will remember this day for the rest of your life,” Harrison said. “You’ve joined this family at an important time. We’re determined to be the police force this city wants and deserves.”
A withering police force and a steady rise in violent crime has threatened to tarnish the legacy of New Orleans’ two-term mayor. Despite the city’s murder count falling three consecutive years, Landrieu has felt increasing heat over the undermanned department, ranging from citizen protest marches to complaints from police unions to privately funded television commercials casting a scathing eye on the administration’s commitment to funding public safety.
“For generations, chronic violence has been a problem in New Orleans,” Landrieu said. “And recent upticks that have been plaguing the city have made people feel unsafe and has reinforced our need to focus our attention. That’s why we’re investing nearly $12 million more in the consent decree to completely transform NOPD and look at every option to put more officers on our streets.”
Landrieu reiterated his position that the Louisiana State Police should supplement NOPD’s manpower with a permanent visible presence in the city. He also commended Harrison for reassigning 23 officers from administrative or security roles to patrol duty, and for cobbling together a new nighttime task force to address crime “hot spots” after dark.
The mayor also appeared to take a veiled shot at Sidney Torres IV, the former city sanitation magnate who recently produced the TV commercials criticizing Landrieu for not keeping the French Quarter safe.
“The most constructive way to help, if you’re a private business owner, is to donate to the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, because they’re helping us with our recruiting and with equipment,” Landrieu said. “That is the best and fastest way to make sure that men and women who are interested in joining the police department do that.”
Monday’s new class included recruits from as far away as Atlanta, Oakland and Maryland.
“We’re growing,” Harrison said. “Today was a sign of progress. We’ve stopped the bleeding. So I am encouraged that we’re moving in the right direction and we’re gaining momentum.
“Of course, it’s always better to have more resources available. But we’re being smart about what we have and how we use it.”
The NOPD confirmed Monday that even as the department added 49 new officers to the force through academy classes Nos. 169 and 170, which graduated in November 2013 and December 2014 respectively, the force lost 120 commissioned officers in 2014.
Last year’s net loss of 71 officers won’t be offset even if all 59 members of classes Nos. 171 and 172 graduate this March and July as hoped. The city budgeted for 150 new officers both in 2014 and 2015 but has struggled to fill recruiting classes to meet those goals, despite receiving 2,964 applications last year.
“To say that the bleeding has stopped is nonsense,” said Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans. “The recruiting, hiring and training of a new academy class is crucial, no question. But we cannot hire our way out of this problem if we don’t address the attrition. Because if we’re losing 120 officers a year, in the six months it takes to train these 30 new cops, we will lose another 60.”
The New Orleans Police Department welcomed 29 new recruits and one lateral recruit to their police academy as class number 172 today. NOPD Superintendent, Michael Harrison says the department has budgeted to bring in 150 new recruits in 2015.
A 5 percent pay raise that kicked in for NOPD personnel last week likely won’t be enough to stem the tide of veteran officers leaving for other law enforcement agencies, draining the New Orleans force of precious experience, Glasser said. And even if somehow all 85 members of the three most recent academy classes are on the street by this December, it could mean nearly one in four patrol officers would be rookies with less than a year’s experience.
“The average tenure of officers on platoons — the guys in the blue shirts answering calls — is dropping like a stone,” Glasser warned.
The NOPD currently has only 330 officers assigned to the three daily patrol platoons across the city’s eight police districts. That number includes 30 recent academy graduates still in training and not authorized to handle service calls on their own. A recent WWL-TV report calculated that meant only 185 officers available to answer service calls in the city when sick leave, vacation or training assignments were factored in.
“That was very misleading,” Harrison contended, “because it did not take into account specialized units that are available at the district level, nor staff positions that the district commander can, at anytime at his or her discretion, put back into patrol to help out. So those numbers are always higher and that was very misleading.”
But when asked what a more accurate estimate would be, Harrison demurred.
“That number changes day to day, because we have training, officers utilizing vacation, sick or training leave. But there’s always a good contingent of officers out there. And we can move those resources around at any time. When the supervisor feels that those resources are not available, we can pull them from other areas.
“We have overtime to back-fill positions, to hold people over, to ask people to come in early. That’s how we smartly deploy those resources. We feel confident that we’re always at an adequate staffing because we have the overtime to back-fill positions when we’re not. The commanders have to be constantly aware of what the staffing needs are, and deploy those resources accordingly. We’re doing everything we can to grow, and to best utilize what we already have.”
Landrieu and Harrison walked through the ranks Monday and introduced themselves to each of the 30 new recruits, whose starting salary is $37,366. Then Landrieu gathered the group around him for a final pep talk.
“One thing that happens in every city in America is that people sit up and complain,” he said. “I appreciate that you have stepped up to actually make a difference. You’ve got a tough job, but you know that. You know what you’re stepping into. You know we’re climbing a steep mountain. But you came anyway.”