Louisiana
5:10 pm
Sun August 17, 2014

New Orleans Makes Big Push To Get More Cops On The Streets

Originally published on Tue August 19, 2014 2:08 pm

New Orleans is still reeling from another spate of violence last weekend, when five people were killed by gunfire and 11 wounded, including two toddlers. The city has launched high-profile campaigns to address gun violence, but a big part of the problem is an acute shortage of police.

Karen Rogers lives in the lower 9th Ward, where a recent drive-by shooting left two people dead and several more wounded. Police say it was drug-related.

"This is not the first time [I've heard gunshots]," says Rogers. "This is the first time to actually see people murdered and shot."

She blames, in part, a lack of police. "They're not even around here," she says.

All over New Orleans, bystanders to crime say response times are slow. Calls to 911 often ring endlessly with no answer. Get in a fender bender? You'll likely wait hours for police.

"Sometimes the police don't arrive timely; sometimes they don't arrive at all," says Rafael Goyeneche, of New Orleans' Metropolitan Crime Coalition. He says the reason is simple.

"We're looking at a 36-year low, from a police manpower standpoint, right now," he says. "There are just too few of them to respond to all the calls for service that they get."

A few years ago, New Orleans had budget problems, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the city would stop hiring new police officers. The NOPD loses about 100 officers a year, through retirements or people quitting. Today, the city's population is back to where it was before Hurricane Katrina, but it has about 500 fewer police officers.

"You didn't really feel the pain, dropping from 1,600 to 1,400," Goyeneche says. "When it started dropping into the 1,300s and below, that's when you started to see backups in calls for service."

Landrieu now wants to hire 400 new officers, fast. At a press conference to address the recent murders and shootings, the mayor spoke, not at a crime scene, as he often does, but at a brand-new police station.

"It stands as a testament to our commitment to make the community safe," Landrieu said.

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas praised the building, new squad cars in the parking lot and recent officer promotions.

"These are all the commitments that are real, that candidates consider when they think about joining New Orleans Police Department," Serpas says.

The recruitment push is on: A private company is speeding up background checks; officers no longer have to live in New Orleans to get hired; and officers no longer have to cover arm tattoos with long sleeves.

Recruiting ads now air on TV across Louisiana and Texas. They're shot in black and white — noir style — showing cops working the iconic streets of New Orleans.

Aspiring recruit Elvin Green, who himself was hurt by gun violence, says he wants to make his city a better place.

"I was shot in front of my high school after a basketball game," Green says. "I want to help out my city."

But progress is slow; there's just one new class of police recruits, with 29 students. They need about a year of training before they can hit the streets. A second class starts next month, and assuming they all graduate, that means 60 new officers in the next year — far short of the goal.

Copyright 2014 WWNO-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wwno.org.

Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

Last weekend, five people were shot and killed in New Orleans and many more were wounded including two toddlers. Police arrested suspects in the wounding of the children, but the shootings have continued. The city launched several high-profile campaigns to address gun violence, but a big part of the problem is a shortage of police. From New Orleans, Eve Troeh of member station WWNO reports.

EVE TROEH, BYLINE: Here's one recent scene. A drive-by shooting in the lower Ninth Ward, two teenagers killed, several people wounded. Drug-related the police say. Karen Rogers lives on the block. She saw it.

KAREN ROGERS: This is not the first time I've heard gunshots. You know, this is the first time to actually see people murdered and shot.

TROEH: She blames, in part, a lack of police.

ROGERS: They not even around here, see, like right now.

TROEH: All over New Orleans you hear this complaint - bystanders to crime say response times are slow. 911 calls often ring endlessly, no answer. Get in a fender bender? You'll likely wait hours for police.

RAFAEL GOYENECHE: Sometimes the police don't arrive timely. Sometimes they don't arrive at all.

TROEH: Rafael Goyeneche of New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission says the reason is simple.

GOYENECHE: We're looking at a 36-year low from a police manpower standpoint right now. There are just too few of them to respond to all the calls for service that they get.

TROEH: A few years ago, he says, the city had budget problems. So it stopped hiring new police. NOPD loses about 100 officers a year just through retirements or people quitting. So now the city's population is about back to where it was before Hurricane Katrina. But it has around 500 fewer police.

GOYENECHE: You didn't really feel the pain dropping from 1,600 to 1,500. When it started dropping into the 1,300's and below, that's when you started to see backups in calls for service.

TROEH: Now the city wants to hire about 400 new officers, fast. At a press conference about the recent murders and shootings, Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke not at a crime scene as he often does but at a brand-new police station.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MAYOR MITCH LANDRIEU: It stands as a testament to our commitment to make the community safe.

TROEH: Police superintendent Ronald Serpas also praised the building as well as new squad cars parked in the lot nd recent officer promotions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD SERPAS: These are all the commitments that are real, that candidates consider when they think about joining the New Orleans Police Department.

TROEH: The recruitment push is on. A private company is speeding up background checks. Officers no longer have to live in New Orleans to get hired. And police no longer have to cover arm tattoos with long sleeves.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is why I'm here. I have this idea that this city can be what it is on its best day every day.

TROEH: Ads like this one for joinnopb.org, now air across Louisiana and Texas. They're shot in black and white, noir style, with cops working the iconic streets of New Orleans. But progress is slow. The city started just one new class of police recruits, 29 students. They'll need about a year of training before they can hit the streets. A second class starts next month, assuming they all graduate, that means about 60 new officers in the coming year far short of the goal. At a local school, aspiring recruits file into a cafeteria for more information.

ELVIN GREEN: Well, I'm here to become an NOPD officer.

TROEH: Elvin Green says he's been hurt by gun violence.

GREEN: I was shot in front of my high school after a basketball game. I want to help out my city, you know. Like, I want to make my city a better place.

TROEH: He hopes to join the gang unit. At the event, Green and 18 others sign up to take a civil service exam. It's the first step in the long process of becoming a much-needed member of the New Orleans Police Department. For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.