Residency demand scrapped for cops, firefighters, EMS

Reacting to the loss of hundreds of veteran officers from the New Orleans Police Department in recent years, the City Council voted Thursday to free police officers, firefighters and EMS technicians to live where they please, unlike other city employees, who still will have to agree to live in Orleans Parish to be hired.

Passage of the ordinance by a 6-1 vote — with only Councilman James Gray opposed — marks a definitive statement by the council that the so-called domicile rule is hampering efforts to recruit police.

An ordinance proposed last year by Councilwomen Susan Guidry and Jackie Clarkson — but never voted on because of a lack of support from other members — would have suspended the residency requirement for police and other emergency workers for a year to give the council time to study the effects of the rule, which is based on the idea that city workers who live in New Orleans are more invested in their community and presumably spend more money in town.

The long-standing — if sometimes controversial — policy was suspended for seven years after Hurricane Katrina before quietly going back into effect last year.

This time, Guidry and Clarkson dispensed with the concept of a temporary solution and, instead, scrapped the live-in-the-city rule altogether for public safety workers. Guidry said simply suspending the policy “will not ease the uncertainty for potential applicants.” The new ordinance also allows police officers who now live in the city to move out.

At a hearing late last month, Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas acknowledged deepening losses to the police force and said the domicile ordinance may be an obstacle to new hiring. After a years-long hiring freeze, the city and the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation last July embarked on what Serpas called a “full-scale, full-on recruitment campaign” aimed at stanching the tide of losses and moving toward the 1,575 sworn officers that Serpas has said are needed to properly police the city.

During his re-election campaign this year, Mayor Mitch Landrieu — who said during the campaign that he supported the residency requirement — pegged the desired number at 1,600.

Serpas said the force now stands at about 1,150 sworn police officers, thanks to the continuing loss of 100 or more officers a year. The 1,150 total includes about 100 officers who are on extended sick leave, suspension or otherwise out of commission.

Serpas said Thursday that ending the domicile rule will “provide for a larger pool of applicants” for police jobs, including lateral hires from nearby law enforcement agencies.

The city is lagging badly in its goal of fielding five 30-member training classes this year. The first class has yet to be filled, with only 19 hired, Serpas said Thursday. An online application process launched last fall has drawn more than 1,200 online applicants, but many applicants drop out during the review and hiring process.

Lt. Col Jerry Sneed, deputy mayor for public safety, said 113 applicants in January met the NOPD’s minimum requirements, for instance, but only 49 of them showed up to take the test, and just 19 passed it.

If the rate of attrition — to retirements, resignations and firings — holds steady, as Serpas expects, it could take many years to reach the 1,575 goal, even though Serpas said last month that the recruiting campaign was “beginning to gain steam.”

After the residency rule was reinstated last year, taking some city officials by surprise, the council quickly altered the law to let current employees living outside New Orleans stay in their homes, and giving new hires, including police, fire and EMS workers, 180 days to move into the city.

Clarkson called Thursday’s vote “the first hurdle in a marathon.”

“We owe this to the police already on duty. They are out there without enough backup,” she said. “They are out there without enough manpower to do the job they’re sent out there to do.”

Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who has two sons in the NOPD, supported the move but cautioned that retention of existing police officers is a larger problem, with officers’ frustrations — over relatively low pay and what she called a “cockamamie” new city-run detail system — driving many of them away.

“I really don’t think it’s going to help as much as you do,” she said of removing the domicile requirement. “I’m voting for it because if it gives us five new officers, it’s five more than we had before. But what I’m saying to the public is: Don’t think this is a solution to the problem, ’cause it’s not.”

Both Clarkson and Hedge-Morrell are leaving the council in a few weeks.

Just how the residency requirement has affected the NOPD’s recruiting campaign is uncertain, although Serpas said interest in New Orleans police jobs has come from across the country, with about a third of police academy graduates in the single class fielded in 2013 coming from outside the city.

Supporters of scrapping the rule for “first responders” — police, fire and EMS — called the rule a luxury for a city with an increasingly high cost of living and relatively low salaries. New Orleans police officers start at around $35,000 a year.

In voting against the measure, Gray said other possible barriers to police recruitment and retention — including a requirement put in place by Serpas that officers hold 60 hours of college credit — had not been addressed.

“It seems to me that it makes much more sense to do a comprehensive analysis of all the barriers, all of the factors, and make one decision on it,” Gray said, telling Serpas he doesn’t see signs of the NOPD recruiting campaign when he roams the city. “In many of the places I am, I see no indication the Police Department is reaching out to the people in those locations,” he said.

Councilwoman Stacy Head said she was voting for the ordinance because the residency issue is a “red herring” that distracts public attention from more pressing issues plaguing the Police Department, such as the controversy over the new system for coordination of officers’ off-duty detail work.

Serpas said about 41 percent of current NOPD officers live outside the city. He said last month that “about 25 to 28” percent of officers hold a college degree.

Attorney Donovan Livaccari, representing the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, supported the ordinance, calling the repeal of the domicile law for police officers “a good first step.” He said the council also needs to address higher pay and other retention concerns.

City officials also have acknowledged heavy attrition at the police 911 call center, leading to an alarmingly poor answer rate for emergency calls. But the ordinance does not exempt new hires for that department from the residency requirement.