'Quite the tall task': Why NOPD's aggressive hiring, recruitment strategy likely a 'long shot'

The City of New Orleans has a new NOPD recruitment strategy designed to ultimately bring the department to 1,600 officers. The new plan as announced by the city in early January calls for growing the department by 60 officers in 2016 and 90-95 officers each year between 2017 and 2020. The full proposed schedule can be seen below.

With the end goal established, we can use available data sources to figure out how feasible it is. Evaluating the city’s recruitment goal requires comparing the current plan to historical trends in both New Orleans and nationally. There are three important data points to consider when analyzing manpower:

-Year-end manpower total
-Number of officers added
-Number of officers lost to attrition

Understanding the current plan, therefore, requires reconstructing past New Orleans police recruitment efforts. To do so, I tried to gather data on NOPD’s manpower total, officers lost to attrition and officers added. Doing so was not easy, but if one can find out two of the three categories, then all three can be figured out.

I was able to find a list of how many officers left NOPD for each year from 1995 to 2010, and the FBI’s Crime in the United States series provides a manpower total reported by NOPD over that period (excluding 2009, for some reason, but NOPD manpower didn’t change much from 2008 to 2010, so we can estimate 2009 with some confidence).

Media reports tell us NOPD’s manpower and recruiting total for 2011 through 2015, so with all of this information we can create an estimate of NOPD’s manpower total, recruits added and attrition rate for each of the last 20 years. As a disclaimer, these numbers are only estimates based on numbers NOPD self-reported to the FBI. They may not be precise — especially for the 2005-2007 timeframe — but these estimates are extremely useful for placing the current plan in a local historical context. It doesn’t really matter whether 319 or only 298 officers joined NOPD in 1997, what matters is that there was clearly a large hiring surge in the 1997-1998 timeframe.

The manpower numbers reported to the FBI differ, sometimes by over 100 officers, from a Metropolitan Crime Commission report from May 2015 which included NOPD manpower over this period. The most logical explanation for the discrepancy is the NOPD reporting academy recruits in its manpower total to the MCC, but the FBI only counting graduates. We will use the FBI’s numbers for the sake of consistency.

I have combined the 2005-2007 years for the sake of simplicity. The important part to know is that NOPD lost over over 500 total officers between 2005 and the end of 2007 while adding around 327 during that time.

NOPD’s manpower from 1995 to 2015 provides critical context when evaluating the feasibility of the city’s plan to get to 1,600 by the end of 2020. The next step is to break down the recruitment schedule into its component parts: recruitment and attrition.

NOPD Recruitment 1995 – 2015:

The recruitment angle is the easier angle to analyze. NOPD is looking to add 185 officers each year from 2017 to 2020. As can be seen from the above table, NOPD has had two periods of growth over the last two decades: in 1997-1998 and after Katrina in 2007-2009.

NOPD produced an estimated 580 new officers in 1997 and 1998 and roughly 529 new officers between 2007 and 2009. The Department roughly has hit its 2017-2020 goal of 185 new officers four times total in the last 20 years (1997, 1998, 2007 and 2008).

Judging by its recent past, New Orleans can reach 185 new officers in a year. But hitting that goal in four consecutive years will require more consistent recruiting than the city has accomplished since 1995.

Of course, New Orleans has changed quite a bit since the late 1990s. The city is trying to add a net of 440 officers in 5 years, but New Orleans added a net of only 325 officers (according to FBI statistics) in the five years between 1995 and 2000. The department’s growth in that era amounted to 27 percent. Adding 440 officers to today’s total would require growth of 37 percent. And the 2007-2009 hiring surge took place during a time when the city itself grew by 50 percent.

So not only is New Orleans trying to eclipse its best hiring streak of the last 20 years, it’s trying to do that at a time when the city has 85,000 to 100,000 fewer residents than it did during NOPD’s first growth spurt and is growing much slower than during the second spurt.

It’s quite the tall task, in other words.

Attrition

The NOPD attrition rate can be determined by dividing the number of separations in any given year by the number of NOPD officers. NOPD has averaged attrition at a little over 9 percent since 1995, though the post-Katrina rate (9.2 percent) has been a bit higher than the pre-Katrina rate (8.4 percent).

Just how attainable is the city’s goal of losing just 90 officers a year between 2016 and 2020? The available data suggests that it’s fairly unlikely.

In order to lose only 90 officers for each of the next 5 years would require a decreasing attrition rate each year, from 7.7 percent in 2016 to 6.0 percent in 2020. NOPD has certainly taken steps to improve morale and retention, but looking at NOPD’s manpower history in this way shows that an attrition rate below 8 or 9 percent over a multi-year span is unlikely.

There is one final aspect that must be considered when evaluating the feasibility of the city’s NOPD recruitment schedule: the national environment.

The National Environment

NOPD added over 350 officers in a four-year span between the end of 1996 and 2000. This recruitment push came at a time when many police departments throughout the country were growing.

According to the FBI data, 16 police departments in medium-to-large cities (having populations between 250,000 and 1 million people) added over 100 officers during that span. New Orleans was one of seven departments to add 200 or more officers. Memphis added 385 officers and Indianapolis grew by 576 officers during that time frame.

Today’s environment is quite different for police departments attempting to grow. Over 70 percent of the departments between 250,000 and 1,000,000 people were larger in 2000 than they were in 1996. Only 46 percent of those departments, however, are larger in 2014 (the last year for which data is available) than they were in 2010.

Those departments that are growing are doing so by smaller margins. Only four departments of between 250,000 and 1,000,000 people grew by more than 100 officers between 2010 and 2014, and none of the departments has grown by more than 200 officers.

The city has proposed growing by 90 a net of officers each year between 2017 and 2020. The 63 American cities between 250,000 and 1 million people accomplished that feat a total of seven times between 2010 and 2014. None of those cities that grew by 90 or more officers once between 2010 and 2014 were able to do it even twice.

Another helpful way of looking at this is to compare cities that grew in a given year from 1996 to 2014 and the city’s plan for 2016 to 2020. Median growth since 1996 has hovered around 2.5% with the highest years approaching 4% and the lowest 1.5%. NOPD grew at a healthy and realistically sustainable 3% in 2015. The city’s plan, however, calls for growth of between 5.2% and 7.4% per year for each of the next five years.

Maybe it is doable, but New Orleans would be the only city in the United States growing its police force at those rates.

Conclusion

It is certainly possible for New Orleans to reach its goal of 1,600 officers by the end of 2020. That having been said, a review of the historical record suggests it’s a long shot.

In order to reach 1,600 in four years, New Orleans would need to recruit more officers in a sustained fashion than it has at any point in the last two decades. The city would need to accomplish this task despite being smaller than it was during the late 1990s recruiting burst and do it at a time when police departments across the country are growing less. Finally, this growth would need to be accompanied by a sustained attrition rate that has not been achieved in at least the last 20 years.

Anything is possible, but this analysis shows the odds are long indeed.

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