New Orleans officers, leaving in droves, air grievances in exit interviews
"It's not about the money. It's about job satisfaction and appreciation," said a sergeant who resigned after 12 years
By John Simerman
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — Gregory Rotton's career as a New Orleans Police Department officer ended with a crash.
A detective in the First District, Rotton was tapped to investigate after four young people in a stolen SUV barreled into a St. Claude Avenue arcade on Jan. 12 with police in pursuit, severely injuring a worker.
As he walked away a month later, after almost seven years on the force, Rotton said his superiors pressured him to accuse 19-year-old Lamar Logan, the lone adult in the crash, of trying to rob a federal agent in Treme minutes earlier. Rotton argued that the account from the off-duty agent amounted to "a suspicious person incident at most." He said he was then quickly yanked from a choice assignment.
"I refuse to work for an agency in which I can be punished for upholding my oath and the rule of law," Rotton wrote in a letter to the department.
His account sits among hundreds of pages of officer exit interviews reviewed by The Times-Picayune, a hefty stack mostly filled with harsh criticism for a department struggling to find and keep officers.
The interviews are from officers who resigned or retired in 2022, many of them leaving for jobs at other police agencies. Together, their parting shots echo a chorus of despair from an overtaxed, dispirited force that today enters its second decade under federal oversight.
When former Mayor Mitch Landrieu and then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced the sprawling federal consent decree at Gallier Hall on July 24, 2012, the department employed more than 1,300 commissioned officers, with a budget for 1,600 and plans to remake the NOPD in the image of reform.
Now, fewer than 1,000 officers remain after a net loss of one in six officers since the start of last year. More than 90 have left the force this year as of early July, according to police officer groups. That's about the same number who resigned, retired or were fired in all of 2020.
The departing thoughts of veteran officers and newbies alike lend biting and often emotional detail to a recent NOPD-commissioned survey that reflected similar discontent, with pay a distant second in the reasons officers gave for leaving in droves.
Overly punitive discipline and restrictive policies were nearly twice as likely to be cited as a reason for officers' departure than was pay, according to the survey by SSA Consultants.
Officers went further in their exit interviews, speaking of crippling internal politics, run-down gear, a lack of support from police brass, disciplinary head-hunting, and for many officers, little sign of an NOPD ready to address its problems.
The exit interviews were provided by the city in response to a public records request, with the names of the officers redacted. They are identifiable, however, through other information in the records.
"I can no longer watch the citizens suffer to violence and crime while the department is not allowed to do the basic service of protecting the citizens of this community," wrote Nathan Gex, a 23-year NOPD veteran who moved to the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office in April. "People become police officers to make a difference and protect citizens. This is not happening, and we hear it and see it in the community."
"It's not about the money. It's about job satisfaction and appreciation," wrote Joseph Brooks, a sergeant who resigned in March after 12 years. "The department has been in decline for some time. Disciplinary issues prevent personnel from performing without fear of punishment. I would refuse to be bullied into punishing officers for minor infractions."
Some, like Rotton, aired specific gripes over incidents or supervisors that soured them. Others hammered the department in broad strokes. A few retiring veterans, including some long-serving police brass who left this year, gave the department high marks. Others declined to participate.
Amid a surge in homicides and carjackings, confidence among residents in a downsized police force also has tanked. The bloodloss at the NOPD, the exit interviews show, weighs on those who remain.
"Sometimes there's no time to eat," said one rookie officer who resigned to return to school.
Several officers who resigned this year after stints patrolling New Orleans East described clocking in at the Seventh District to a mountain of unattended 911 calls, with police emergency response times continuing to hover at decade highs.
"Working in the 7th district on 'C' platoon with only four officers on the streets with a 55-call backlog plus threats of (discipline) if evals and training weren't done is ridiculous," wrote Willie Herron, who wrote that he was jumping to St. Tammany Parish after less than two years.
"Due to working overnight, I never see my family. Was in the 7th and the backlog was unbearable," wrote Meghan Silva, who quit as an officer after two years.
In recent months, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and the City Council have pushed to reignite an officer recruiting campaign that has foundered over the pandemic, while offering tidy sums to keep officers.
This week, the City Council approved a plan to help stanch attrition with big bonus payments for officers and other public safety workers. In a year, officers are slated to receive $5,000 for every five years they've served, up to $20,000.
Yet in their exit interviews, officers generally praised the NOPD's pay, benefits and academy training, while panning department culture.
Joshua Fontenot, a senior police officer who resigned after seven years, wrote that the NOPD's "pension system and pay are amazing," but that "cronyism is rampant."
Fontenot took a scorched-earth approach in the space marked for suggestions: "Fire everyone, dissolve the department and start over."
The NOPD's federal overseers have not been nearly as despairing, praising department leaders for dramatic strides toward compliance in all areas of the reform agreement.
It's still unclear, however, when U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan plans to release the department from court oversight. In April, Morgan projected a phase-out to begin in June. That timetable has passed with no public action.
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