New Orleans PD drops below 900 officers for first time since 1940s
A police retirement group began fining the city about $50,000 monthly to cover pension losses sustained by what it considers a "partially dissolved" police force
By Missy Wilkinson
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — Two years into a staffing crisis on the New Orleans Police Department, recent signs suggest the department has hit rock bottom, though the news is decidedly mixed.
Last week, the number of commissioned NOPD officers dropped below 900 for the first time since the 1940s. And last month, a police retirement group began fining the city about $50,000 monthly to cover police pension losses sustained by what it considers a "partially dissolved" police force. More fines are likely coming, based on additional officer losses.
But violent crime is trending down, the department's civilian positions are more than fully staffed, officer applications are up, and the current NOPD recruit class is the largest since 2019, interim superintendent Michelle Woodfork says.city officials say.
Though net gains in officers have yet to materialize, some see those markers pointing to a department attrition crisis that may have reached its nadir.
"It looks promising that we've hit the low point, although there are still a lot of uncertainties," said Jeff Asher, a crime analyst who built the city's NOPD staffing dashboard. "I don't know that you can celebrate yet, but there is good evidence that recruitment has picked up."
Last year the department hired 28 recruits, Woodfork said Tuesday at the Criminal Justice Committee and budget meeting. This year, they've hired 67 recruits, with each academy class larger than the last. Eleven recruits graduated March 31. Eighteen more will graduate this month.
On Wednesday morning, classes 198 and 199 — with 20 and 33 cadets, respectively— began their day at the police academy with 7:45 a.m. outdoor physical training despite a heat advisory, before moving to "Handcuff Practical Exercises," "Surviving the Streets of NOLA" and other classes.
The department says nine former officers who left in recent years have rejoined the force. Woodfork credits multiple rounds of retention bonuses ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 for slowing what became a 2-year rash of departures that reached a high point last year, when the department shrunk by well over 100 officers.
Asher's data shows improvements in pulling officer applicants into the recruiting pipeline: As of Aug. 6, the NOPD had received 328 applications over 30 days, compared to 192 applications over 30 days on Aug. 6, 2022.
Michael Hecht, president & CEO of GNO, Inc., expressed cautious optimism in a recruiting plan from Woodfork that echoes one pushed by The NOLA Coalition, a group of more than 500 businesses and civil leaders that formed in response to escalating crime and a shrinking force.
"NOLA Coalition-supported efforts to address recruiting, pay and working conditions are making a difference," said Hecht, the group's spokesperson. "That said, we still have a long way to go to rebuild the NOPD to a staff level near 1,200 officers."
Police officials say they've cleared a logjam in hiring civilians to fill many of the roles left wanting with fewer officers.
Fifty long-touted civilian posts, meant to provide non-emergency support and help trim response times—have been filled, and then some. The NOPD has hired 295 civilians to shore up bureaus including Field Operations, Investigation and Support, Management Services and the NOPD's internal affairs arm, the Public Integrity Bureau.
Those civilian hires put the department in the red, Woodfork admitted at Tuesday's budget hearing, as the $174 million personnel budget only covers salaries for 201 civilian positions, and $97.5 million of it has been spent.
City Council members declared it good problem to have.
"I'm committed to finding whatever is necessary to continue this momentum we have relative to hiring and operations," council member Eugene Green told Woodfork on Tuesday.
At this point, whether that momentum will continue and allow the city to match or exceed attrition is a math equation, Asher said—one with enough unknowns to warrant a "maybe."
"Which is an improvement from the last few years, when the answer was no," he said.
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