Council members press Serpas on raises for NOPD

City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell has a different idea for New Orleans’ police chief about how to get more officers on the street: give them all a good raise.

The mother of two officers herself, Hedge-Morrell handed Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas a full analysis Wednesday of how much her idea would cost — though it only seemed to underscore how unlikely a proposal it is.

Her suggestion, a 30 percent pay hike spread over three years for every officer under the rank of captain, would cost more than $8 million each successive year, for a total of $24 million in the third year, money the Police Department probably will not have unless Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the council take it from some other city agency.

Still, Hedge-Morrell pressed Serpas during a council budget hearing Wednesday to at least look at the idea, arguing the department may be able to halt the erosion of its ranks by making the job more attractive rather than simply trying to recruit new officers at existing pay levels.

“Five recruit classes isn’t the solution to our problem of you having enough officers,” she said. “The solution is to offer a more attractive pay plan that will keep you from losing as many officers as you’re losing.”

Serpas presented statistics to the council showing the department has lost 89 officers so far this year and almost half simply resigned rather than retiring or being fired.

At the same time, the department has been able to hire only 41 officers to replace them.

The city has a recruit class of about 24 new officers ready to graduate from the Police Academy next month, but it is struggling to fill the next class, drawing just eight more recruits so far.

Hedge-Morrell and the city’s police unions also argue new restrictions on the private security details officers work for extra income, the result of a court-ordered reform plan for the department, have made the job even less attractive.

Still, there is little money in the department’s budget for next year that could be easily shifted to pay for raises.

Almost three-quarters of the $128.6 million allocated to the department in Landrieu’s 2014 budget proposal would go toward salaries and benefits, about $93.8 million. Another 17 percent, or $21.8 million, is set aside for pension obligations.

About $4.5 million, or 4 percent, is for overtime pay. Much of the rest will be eaten up my miscellaneous expenses such as building leases and professional services.

And Serpas took issue with the idea of offering raises only to those below the rank of captain, saying he is trying to cultivate the next generation of leaders in the department and needs to compensate higher-ups accordingly.

Ideally, he said, everyone on the force except himself should get a raise.

In response to a question from Councilwoman Stacy Head about the possibility of raises for the rank-and-file, Serpas said, “It’s easy to get caught up in a bourgeoisie-proletariat argument, but the people we want to inspire to be leaders should not be disincentivized because they chose to be leaders.”

Making clear that she disagreed, Head asked whether the department at least has an estimate of its own about how much a package of salary hikes would cost, however it might be structured.

Serpas said he did but wanted to look it over again before giving it to the council.

In the meantime, the chief acknowledged his preferred strategy for restocking the department’s depleted ranks — training new officers or hiring them from other parishes — is off to a slow start.

Council President Jackie Clarkson asked him, “Are you having trouble filling your second recruit class for this year?”

Serpas responded, “We’re not as far along as I hoped we would have been.”

He chalked up the shortage of viable applicants in part to the fact that the department did no recruiting in 2010, 2011 or 2012.

“It took some time to build the machine, but now that it’s built, we’re starting to see some momentum,” he said.

Clarkson also pressed him on the controversial rule — suspended for several years after Hurricane Katrina but now back in force — requiring that new police and other city employees live in Orleans Parish.

“It is a distraction, I think,” Serpas said, particularly when the department is trying to attract so-called “laterals,” individuals who have already been trained in another parish or state and earned their certification as a police officer.

Serpas said laterals have to go through only about half as many training hours as typical recruit. “And they go to the streets with the experience that they’ve gotten someplace else,” he said, “which makes them more valuable quicker.”

Still, if Serpas seemed unwilling to budge in the face of council pressure on the particulars of his spending plan for 2014, the council at the moment seems far from certain to pass a proposed suspension of the domicile rule.

A council committee voted 2-1 this month to forward the measure to the full body for a vote, but only after pitched debate among council members and members of the public, many of whom would like to see more officers living among those they serve.