Suburban La. PDs see ranks increase as NOPD struggles with retention
One department has a wait list with many departing NOPD officers despite paying $20,000 less
By Blake Paterson
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — Cara Cummings moved across the country to work for the New Orleans Police Department, intent on trading her job as a sheriff's deputy in Vermont for one patrolling the streets of the Crescent City.
But two weeks before she was scheduled to graduate from NOPD's police academy, she dropped out. The mood among rank-and-file officers was too "depressing," she said.
Passionate about law enforcement, the 25-year-old instead turned her sights several miles west, to the Kenner Police Department, and on Thursday she was one of a dozen new officers to graduate from its academy.
"From 1,300 miles away, NOPD looks like a great, progressive department," she said. "Once you're inside of it, not so much."
Despite an array of recruiting initiatives, the NOPD is struggling to replenish its police force, which has slumped by nearly 300 officers in the last four years, with no sign of turning the tide.
As of last week, the NOPD had 944 officers, including recruits, down from nearly 1,200 officers at the end of 2019.
At the same time, suburban law enforcement agencies across the region say they are relatively well-staffed, avoiding the same surge in resignations and retirements. Some have even seen their ranks grow.
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, which last year convinced voters to approve a property tax to increase salaries, has 34 vacancies out of 618 positions in its enforcement divisions, which include patrol, special operations and investigations.
On the north shore, the St. Tammany Parish's Sheriff's Office has 45 vacancies out of 523 budgeted positions — a 92% staffing rate — among roles that include both enforcement and corrections.
And for the first time in several years, the Slidell Police Department is fully-staffed — thanks, in part, to NOPD.
Over the last three years, the suburban police force has hired eight former New Orleans Police Department officers, a boon for a department of 120 officers.
"We have no openings, and a waiting list to hire people, a lot of which are NOPD officers," said Daniel Seuzeneau, the Slidell Police Department's chief administrative officer.
That's despite the fact that sergeants at the Slidell Police Department make roughly $20,000 less than their counterparts in New Orleans.
"The officers coming here are making a lot less money," Seuzeneau said. "They like the atmosphere. I can't answer why."
Thursday's graduation ceremony in Kenner offered a peek at why some suburban departments are winning the competition for officers.
Trey Carter, who transferred from a police department in Dallas, considered working for NOPD, but worried that if his life was in danger he wouldn't have adequate back-up.
"If something were to happen to me in Kenner, a lot of people would show up — in less than two minutes," he said.
Jonathan Dunn said he would've applied to NOPD only as a "last resort," also citing concerns over "low manpower."
The 22-year-old college graduate got offers at both the JPSO and Kenner, but decided on the latter, adding that the department's acquisition of new radios and vehicles helped sway him.
Kenner Police Chief Keith Conley, who took office in July, has made recruiting new officers a top priority, and in September, he created a position to oversee those efforts.
Officer Ricky Pabst, who took on that role, now travels to college campuses and job fairs in what he calls the "recruit mobile": an SUV decked out with recruiting information, including a QR code that allows applicants to message Pabst directly.
Conley also boosted the starting salary for new officers in Kenner to $52,000 a year, slightly higher than what's offered by NOPD.
Still, Kenner can't compete with NOPD's generous pay scale, which after one year on the job, offers a salary of around $60,000, according to a calculator on the department's website.
The New Orleans Police Department did not respond to interview requests to discuss recruiting. However, city and police department officials have said that recruiting new officers and retaining current officers remains one of the department's biggest priorities.
City and department officials have expressed frustration at the pace of hiring. But a department spokesperson said previously that the application process includes variables that can extend the process.
Over the past year, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and City Council members have worked to allocate millions of dollars to retention bonuses for officers, have agreed to let officers take cars home and have loosened other requirements in an effort to recruit and retain members of the force. Last year, the city worked with the Police and Justice Foundation to hire consultants focused on bringing in more officers and making reforms aimed at bringing down violent crime
However, money isn't everything. A survey commissioned by NOPD last year found that officers were more likely to cite overly punitive discipline and restrictive policies than pay as their reason for leaving.
Added Cummings, "You can make millions of dollars, if you're not happy, you're not happy."
'We're like a big family'
Even among smaller departments, which often struggle to compete with the perks and benefits offered by larger agencies, staffing levels are on the rise.
The Gretna Police Department is six employees short of reaching its goal of 137 full-time employees. Deputy Chief Jason DiMarco said that last year that deficit was closer to 20 employees.
"I think being a smaller shop, it's a little easier, because the right people get one-on-one time with new hires," DiMarco said.
To make Gretna more attractive, the department has been more "open-minded" with its scheduling, allowing officers who have other obligations, like school, to work flexible hours, DiMarco said.
The Covington Police Department is fully-staffed with 38 full-time commissioned officers and six reserve officers, said Sgt. Edwin Masters, a department spokesperson.
"We're like a big family here," Masters said. "Our employees are listened to, and heard."
The Westwego Police Department is one officer short of reaching its goal of 36 commissioned officers. Chief Dwayne Munch, Sr. said a handful of officers exited the profession in recent years for other jobs, like truck driving.
"When I first became police chief, we had a file cabinet full of applications," said Munch, who took office in 2001. "Now, there's one or two on file."
Correction: This story was changed on March 19, 2023 to reflect the proper title of Deputy Chief Jason DiMarco
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