NOPD struggles to bring on new cops as force dwindles

Force dwindles; new hires hard to find

Stung by lung cancer and saddled with a bum rotator cuff, 65-year-old Hannah Augillard Benjamin may be hard-pressed to protect.

But she’s dying to serve.

So the retired school instructor and Army reservist slid into her 1996 Ford Crown Victoria with its one good window on a recent Saturday and drove to a recruiting event near the Fair Grounds, where she signed up to become a rookie New Orleans police officer.

“I want to be a grandma cop in the neighborhood and anywhere I go, show my badge and tell them: ‘It wouldn’t be nice to do,’ ” she said of would-be criminals. “I’d talk them out of it. What’s wrong with that?”

Recruiters promptly scheduled her to take the Civil Service exam the following Monday. Benjamin missed the cut.

The grandmother of five was far from alone in her desire — and subsequent failure — to latch on as one of “the best and the brightest,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s promised new generation of officers to replenish a police force that has shrunk to historically low numbers after four years of hiring paralysis.

More than 1,500 people have signed up to don badge, gun and body camera since an online application process went live in November, fueling an ambitious hiring campaign that began earlier in 2013. The big online advantage: Anyone can apply from anywhere, anytime.

But while NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas and others trumpet the sheer number of applicants as a sign of mounting interest in the job, the payoff so far has been meager.

The goal of hiring and training 150 new officers this year in five academy classes — as touted by Landrieu in his successful re-election bid — appears unreachable as 2014’s halfway mark approaches.

“At the rate we’re going now, it will not happen,” said Amy Trepagnier, who heads the Civil Service Department’s recruiting program, which has prioritized police above hiring for other city agencies.

The city so far this year has managed to fill a single academy class — mostly with cadets rounded up last fall for a class that was shelved until spring for lack of bodies.

Another class, or perhaps two, may be filled this year, Trepagnier said. Assuming the usual handful of academy dropouts, perhaps 50 or 75 new officers will join the NOPD ranks from this year’s crop, according to those projections.

In the meantime, the continued hemorrhaging from resignations, retirements and firings from the NOPD has sped up lately, Serpas acknowledged. Another 60 officers have left since the start of the year, he said last week. The pace is about 15 percent higher than the average of 112 cops lost over the past three years, and close to the 20-year average of 137 annual departures, despite the force’s shrunken status.

Some of the increase was expected, Serpas said, as many older cops who came on decades ago, in a previous hiring binge, have reached full retirement.

Numbers keep falling

The department’s sworn ranks sat at 1,141 officers last week, according to city figures, deepening a 36-year low and sliding still further from the 1,575 total that Serpas and Landrieu maintain as the bull’s-eye for a properly staffed NOPD. Four years ago, the force stood at 1,525.

“We should be able to (get there). And we are aggressively recruiting 150. And I think as things get better we will be able to do that over time. You can’t do it, like, tomorrow,” Landrieu said in a recent interview.

“If you want to add 300 people to the Police Department, or 400, you actually have to hire 800” to allow for further attrition, the mayor added. “So that’s a very aggressive schedule. So when we started hiring 150, what I found was the process was really slow. Civil Service really gets in the way of going fast and hiring qualified people. And it’s bureaucratic.”

Landrieu pointed to a slow background-check process — now managed by NOPD cops — that has held up hiring. The city is teaming with the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, pledging $550,000 between them for targeted online recruiting and to pay an outside firm to do the background work, foundation CEO Melanie Talia said. The administration also has authorized more Civil Service staff to help speed up the testing and processing of applications.

Yet according to Civil Service data, only a tiny fraction of the 1,318 people who have submitted NOPD applications this year will make it out of the gate. Most don’t get much past the “send” button.

More than a third of initial applicants admit to being unqualified from the get-go, despite clear directions that they need either 60 hours of college credit or military service. Hundreds more — nearly 30 percent of the total — simply don’t bother submitting college transcripts or other documents proving their eligibility, the figures show.

Many may apply just to keep up appearances with the unemployment office or to “make mom and dad happy,” Trepagnier said.

That leaves 431 applicants from this year who have been scheduled for the Civil Service exam, the first in a series of hurdles aimed at weeding out the wannabes. More than half failed to show up.

Of the 195 applicants from 2014 who set their test pencils in motion for the multiple-choice or writing portions of the exam, 89, or nearly half, failed it. Another half-dozen botched the “agility” test, which calls for applicants to do 10 pushups, 14 situps and run a bit.

Officer hopefuls must finish a 300-meter “sprint” in two minutes. They also must complete a 1.5-mile jaunt in a click under 20 minutes. At least one candidate irked test-takers when he walked it, never breaking stride.

A dozen other candidates went on to fail the NOPD background check, which includes an in-depth probe of past criminal and work histories and a voice stress test to spot liars.

That leaves 87 candidates still in play who either have not yet taken the agility test or still must undergo the background screening, as of June 9.

Still to come, if they make it through, is a psychological and physical screening and an interview with a new NOPD review panel, a body created to comply with a federal consent decree mandating a wide range of reforms to the trouble-plagued department.

As of Friday, six people had cleared the background test and were awaiting the panel’s review. A single applicant from 2014 has made it all the way through and is now a New Orleans police officer.

Challenges no surprise

To the administration, it’s a numbers game, and the challenges come as no surprise.

“Some people are more or less serious about it than others,” Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin said of the candidate pool. “To generate 150 new officers for the NOPD, we know we have to touch tens of thousands of people and generate thousands of online applicants so you can yield 2 or 3 percent across the finish line.”

Neither Kopplin nor Serpas would project how many new cops will be hired into academy classes this year. Serpas characterized the projection of five recruit classes as a “budget statement that makes sense,” rather than a hard public pledge. Instead, he emphasized his newfound authority to add new cops continuously — a first since he returned to the NOPD from Nashville, Tennessee, four years ago at the onset of a hiring freeze.

“We’re going to just hire until we get what we want, if it takes six days, six months, six years,” Serpas said. “I don’t see any disappointment in it. My experience tells me you begin to gain momentum. You have to hire enough where people begin to pay attention. We were unable to hire for a while. I think we’re going to see continuing movement.”

In the meantime, Serpas said, police departments across the country are in the same boat: struggling to find qualified new hires.

Critics, including police officer groups and Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche, blame the Landrieu administration’s past decision to mothball recruiting efforts and failure to increase base salaries for officers who now make about $36,500 a year as bottom-rung cops.

Kopplin, however, says the administration had no choice but to freeze police hiring in the face of a severe budget shortfall inherited from the Nagin administration.

City officials have balked at across-the-board pay raises, citing in part the need to fund massive costs for court-mandated reforms to both the Police Department and the Orleans Parish Prison.

The combination of comparatively low salaries and a college education requirement make for a major recruiting challenge, said Donovan Livaccari, an attorney and spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge.

At the request of officer groups, the Civil Service Commission has agreed to embark on a study of NOPD pay rates.

“Under ideal circumstances, we believe it’s helpful to have those requirements, have that education, but the pay’s gotta be commensurate with what you’re asking people to do,” Livaccari said. “Serpas is right about one thing: They did no recruiting for years. When you turn off that spigot and then you try to turn it on, you have to wait for that pipeline to fill up. They’ve certainly done this to themselves.”

Serpas, who noted that he joined the force 34 years ago with a GED, said he’s sticking with the college requirement, at least for now.

“It’s still a little too early to tell. We’re not sure yet if reducing it would make any difference,” he said. “One of the things we have to recognize is, to be promoted, you have to have the education. The city and the department have invested in a more educated workforce. We’d also like a little better education at the start.”

In the meantime, the department and the City Council have pushed to loosen other eligibility rules for NOPD jobs.

The council last spring discarded a controversial New Orleans residency requirement for new cops. And last week, at Serpas’ request, the Civil Service Commission loosened a ban on any past illegal drug use by officer candidates, while also freeing National Guard and Reserve members and some outside law enforcement officers from the education requirement.

Education bonuses and recruiting incentives, meanwhile, are aimed at enticing officers to stick around, although base pay has remained stagnant for seven years.

A national problem

One national expert said many police agencies across the country face the same struggles.

The military drew a huge number of young, able-bodied men and women — who might otherwise have become cops — for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, just as the military demand slackened, the recession hit, and police departments quit hiring, said Nelson Lim, a RAND Corp. social scientist who has studied police recruiting strategies in Los Angeles, San Diego and Ohio.

“Now the economy’s getting better, things are getting better, there’s competition (for jobs), and they’re starting to hire again,” Lim said, laughing. “It’s the perfect storm.”

The tarnished reputation of the NOPD — stung by episodes of corruption, high-profile prosecutions for alleged officer abuses and now the specter of court-mandated reforms — can’t help, Lim said.

“The department has issues, and some of them are out there, pretty radical issues,” he said. “If you want to be a police officer, I don’t know if that’s where you want to be. On top of that, you’re not paying much. On top of that, you want a college education.”

The numbers show most of the NOPD’s recruiting draw — 75 percent — comes from within Louisiana. Out-of-state applicants most often hail from Alabama, Florida, Texas and Mississippi.

Black candidates make up 56 percent of the pool. White candidates comprise 29 percent, with Hispanic and Asian candidates splitting 8 percent of the applicant field. The average age of officer candidates is 30.

Talia, of the Police and Justice Foundation, said the city struggles to compete against places such as the Dallas area, where starting pay hovers around $42,000. Dallas, too, requires 60 hours of college credit for applicants.

But Talia bristled at the idea that officer hopefuls would dismiss the NOPD.

“I suppose you could ask the other question: Why would you not come to New Orleans?” she said. “Where else are you going to go to back up the Nevilles at Jazz Fest or be a lieutenant in a Mardi Gras parade? Where else are you going to go to say you work in a city renowned for its incredible crowd control efforts? Where else are you going to have a whole host of events to chose from, whether to work or enjoy?”

The “We’re Hiring” banners hang from police stations across the city. Inside City Hall, a sense of urgency seems apparent as the half-year mark approaches.

Kopplin heads a meeting each Friday where city and police brass discuss new ways to tweak the rules and streamline officer hiring.

The risk, Livaccari said, is in loosening the standards too much, as the city did decades ago, inviting in a raft of questionable cops with “disastrous results.”

Fast-forward two decades, and the U.S. Department of Justice is gunning to change a suspect culture as it presses the reforms that Landrieu and Attorney General Eric Holder pledged in July 2012 to bring the NOPD up to constitutional muster.

Addressing the past

The department’s shady past needs to be addressed before the recruiting effort can hit its stride, said newly elected City Councilman Jason Williams, a criminal defense attorney.

“First and foremost, we must raise the integrity of the force,” he said.

The department can start, Williams said, by meeting the deadlines set in the consent decree. The most recent quarterly report by a court-appointed monitor found a variety of areas where the department continues to lag, including a slipshod effort to redraft department policies on officer use of force, training and other areas.

Williams also favors loosening rules that bar candidates based on “youth offenses and low-level drug offenses” that he says could be screened in the interview process. Currently, any felony convictions or misdemeanor convictions for crimes against persons or sexual offenses automatically bar officer hopefuls from a job at NOPD.

Violent crimes and property offenses, meanwhile, continue to climb in the city. And while criminologists say there’s no proven link between police manpower and reported crime levels, several City Council members have labeled the manpower numbers in the NOPD a public-safety crisis that endangers both the public and cops.

Others caution against moving too fast.

At a recent public forum, the lead monitor of the NOPD reform effort noted lapses in the department’s academy program.

“We continue to have concerns,” said Jonathan Aronie, of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton. “We have noticed an absence of lesson plans.”

Training officers to standards deemed unconstitutional makes little sense, said local civil rights attorney Mary Howell.

“They can’t be recruiting new officers when we don’t have court-approved policies to train them on,” Howell said at the forum. “Because, I tell you, what we’re going to have to do is train them all again.”

Talia said the city needs to take that risk.

“We can’t wait to start another cadet class until all of those changes at the academy are made,” she said. “We have to put officers on the street today.”

The current academy class, once 32 strong, now numbers 28. It won’t hit the streets until November.

Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this story.

Follow John Simerman, on Twitter, @johnsimerman.