New Orleans PD hemorrhaging officers with little relief in sight
Despite bonuses, raises and recruitment marketing, the agency is seeing less than half as many candidates as in 2019
By John Simerman
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — When the pandemic struck New Orleans in 2020 and City Hall shut down, widespread recruiting for police officers also went on hiatus.
A social media campaign to find new cadets seemed like a waste if applicants couldn't take the in-person civil service test or enter a police academy with limited seating, said Melanie Talia, president of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation.
The foundation diverted the money, and the hiring landscape soon darkened nationally with protests and social upheaval over police violence against minorities.
As the pool of applicants dwindled, NOPD began hemorrhaging officers. The losses accelerated in 2021, opening a yawning hiring gap that continues to bleed officers from the force, even as violent crime rates soar.
Homicides in New Orleans are on a steady pace to lead the country per capita this year and set a city record for the new millennium.
Though city officials have pledged new money recently for bonuses, raises and marketing to keep and recruit officers, another 76 officers have left the NOPD this year as of June 14, extending an exodus that began last year, recent civil service and police data show.
Less than half as many candidates are applying to replace them as in 2019, the last year the NOPD was able to maintain equilibrium.
The result: no signs of a reversal in the shrinking of the force.
The city has hired 55 recruits since the start of last year, while 227 have left policework, including a dozen of those new hires. The data indicate a net loss of 172 — about one sixth of the force — since the start of last year.
The most recent police academy graduation featured just eight new officers. Applications have slowed to fewer than seven a day on average, and some days, the city gets only one. Recent history shows only 1 in 50 applicants becomes an officer.
The department recently slid below 1,000 commissioned officers, the lowest mark in generations, with no bottom in sight. Debating a suitable size for the police force has become a fruitless exercise, said Jeff Asher, public safety analyst for the City Council.
"It makes it silly to hear 'How many officers should we have?' — whether we should have 1,200 or 1,400 or 1,600 — when we have 1,000 or fewer and we're trending downward," Asher said. "It's like having an argument about where we should hang the next Saints Super Bowl poster. It doesn't strongly reflect where we are at the moment."
Anemic force struggles with policing
Other big cities have also reported jarring losses in officers and applicants during the pandemic. The spiraling trends appear to have hit acutely in New Orleans, accompanied by a prolonged spike in deadly gun violence.
"A lot of what we're seeing happening in New Orleans is national trends that are just happening here more so," Asher said.
The diminished force has struggled to mount a timely response to calls for service. Police response times for serious emergencies — a sore spot for residents even in better times — hover at their longest in more than a decade, while residents endure an epidemic of brazen carjackings across the city, including its toniest enclaves.
In April, young car thieves allegedly struck Audubon Place, stealing vehicles from two residents of the private street — which is staffed by a guard — after rifling through the vehicle of a third resident. Police in that case booked a 19-year-old L.B. Landry student they identified on camera.
Meanwhile, Leslie Cooper said the assailant who fired four bullets into her husband, Joe, during an attack at their home last month in Gentilly remains unidentified, and that her calls to the Third District station rarely get answered.
Still, Cooper, 57, wore a tie-dyed shirt and a sympathetic smile at a meet-and-greet with neighborhood officers last week on the neutral ground outside Gentilly Terrace.
Cooper, a WWOZ radio personality, said she's spent a month with her husband at University Medical Center, where family members of other recent shooting victims regularly pass each other in the halls as they grieve.
"We've got to get a handle on why police are having such a hard time," Cooper said. "We've got to support our officers. That's the only way."
A recent resident survey found satisfaction with the NOPD has tumbled in a year, in every neighborhood, while three-quarters of residents support increasing officer staffing and paying them more.
Officers who have left recently portray a department mired in favoritism around promotions, saddled with policy restrictions emanating from federal oversight, and preoccupied with flagging officers for petty violations.
David Liang, who retired in August and moved to Kansas, said he was passed over multiple times for lieutenant despite high test rankings, and that he finally had enough after 24 years.
"The vast majority of officers want to do police work. That's what they signed on for. It's just you can get in a lot of trouble if you do," he said. "A lot of officers simply shut down. The ones that are not leaving have family ties, or homes in New Orleans and have a reason for being there."
Liang noted that department policy generally bars NOPD officers from speaking out.
A recent retention survey commissioned by the department found pay was a distant second in the reasons officers gave for leaving. Officers said they stayed mostly because they were stuck, waiting for retirement or were looking for work, the survey found.
Samuel Senter, another former officer, noted that NOPD has left the responses to many emergency calls to desk officers.
"We would field calls from citizens who would be shocked at the fact police weren't going to come out in person," Senter said. "'Oh, you're not coming?' And they would just hang up."
A former member of an 8th District task force accused of making illegal stops and searches in the French Quarter in 2020, Senter was cleared of wrongdoing after a lengthy internal investigation.
Still, he left the department and southeast Louisiana this year with his family after two damaging hurricanes, saying he was "tired of getting my house knocked over."
Nationally, the number of police officers has slid modestly. The big officer losses are in cities that police relatively large urban areas, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
"The complexities of policing in New Orleans are significantly different than smaller cities," he said. "Officers are seeing those jobs as less desirable. It's unfortunately become a much more high-risk job than ever."
Funding boosts, other fixes
City officials have moved recently to beef up recruiting after a pandemic lull. The City Council has authorized a new wave of money for retention bonuses and recruiting, and members have floated initiatives to streamline hiring and ease the burden on the NOPD's depleted ranks.
District D Council member Eugene Green noted that the $900,000 in funding the council approved this month for the Police and Justice Foundation, which hasn't yet arrived, will help bankroll a plan for remote testing.
The aim is to clear a major obstacle for some out-of-town applicants, aiming to improve the odds of an applicant turning into an NOPD officer.
At-large Council member Helena Moreno has argued it's time to tailor the force to its diminished size. She's proposed consolidating police districts, asking Louisiana State Police to deploy troopers on the interstates and turning over more police work to civilians.
Similar plans to enlist civilian help to lighten the load have stumbled, including one recent proposal to deputize certain municipal employees to write citations. Though Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration and the council worked together to pass that plan in December, Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson has yet to deputize anyone, according to the city.
The city has delayed responding to public records requests seeking records on staffing and academy classes while declining to respond to related questions on staffing. The newspaper separately obtained a list of the 76 officers who have left the NOPD this year.
"It's just a tough time to be a police officer," added District C Council member Freddie King III, who said he is looking into offering blighted city-owned properties to would-be officers as a sweetener.
"If we don't start getting creative and thinking outside the box, things are going to get worse before they get better," he said.
As she touted the funding boost for police recruiting at a news conference last week, Cantrell said she believes the city is "still on a good path towards recruitment, especially when we know what's happening across the United States of America." But the mayor focused more on the slew of officers leaving the force. This year's departures already match the total for 2018.
"We deal with it by focusing on retention," Cantrell said. "We definitely need to recruit, but recruit right here in the city of New Orleans. That's what truly sets us apart."
Hiring local hasn't helped the city boost officer rolls in the recent past. Only a surge in out-of-state hiring has helped the department add to the ranks. In-state applications to join NOPD have declined year over year since 2017, police figures show.
Talia, the police foundation president, pointed to major raises for deputies in Jefferson Parish and elsewhere, saying the department is "no longer ahead of the game" on compensation for officers.
Talia acknowledged that the recent officer survey pointed to issues with officer morale that money may not solve. She said some members of the City Council support a "deep dive" into the Public Integrity Bureau, the NOPD's internal affairs arm, which some former officers accuse of selective or malicious investigations.
A department that sold itself to candidates on state-of-the-art training and equipment may also need to revisit the message, Talia said, and perhaps the messenger.
"There's no better recruiter than a New Orleans police officer, and when that person says, 'I'm a New Orleans police officer. I love my job. You oughta come be a New Orleans police officer too,' that's invaluable," she said. "We're not there yet."
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