Move to suspend residency rule for public safety workers heads to City Council
“We have an issue of public confidence. We have an issue of lack of morale. We have the (federal) consent decree (governing police reforms.) I don’t want to talk about incentives, I want to know what they are.” Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, the dissenting vote on the committee
A proposal to free newly hired New Orleans police, firefighters and emergency medical workers from the city’s residency requirement until 2015 is headed to the City Council.
A council committee voted 2-1 Friday to forward the proposed suspension of the “domicile rule” to the full council, following a hearing that broke down largely along racial lines and was cut short by loud disorder.
The proposed ordinance is mostly aimed at boosting recruitment for a steadily shrinking New Orleans police force.
Council President Jackie Clarkson, who is sponsoring the proposed change along with Councilwoman Susan Guidry, led the drive for the suspension Friday.
Under the proposed 2014 budget that Mayor Mitch Landrieu unveiled this week, the Police Department is supposed to launch five new recruit classes next year, bringing on as many as 150 fresh recruits. Yet in 2013, with the residency law in place, the department is struggling to try to fill a second class for this year.
Police organizations urged the council members to eliminate the domicile law altogether, saying it’s pointless. Clarkson said she’d prefer that approach but doesn’t think it has the council’s support.
“We want to test it for a year and see if this works as a recruiting tool,” Clarkson said. “Never in the history of this city have we needed to recruit police like we do now. … Our renaissance has been unmatched, and with that comes challenges, one of which has been law enforcement.”
The current ordinance requires all new hires to move into Orleans Parish within six months and stay there as long as they are employed by the city.
As with all city workers who were hired before this year, recruits hired under the suspension could continue to live outside the city even if the council decides later to restore the domicile law, Clarkson said.
According to NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas, the department is down to about 1,200 sworn officers, 375 fewer than he wants. In the meantime, attrition continues to sap the force.
Last year it saw a net loss of 105 officers. The loss so far this year totals 80, according to the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation.
Clarkson and her allies argued that forcing new hires to move into the city could drive away potentially experienced law-enforcement officers who live in nearby parishes, though they admitted it’s unclear just what effect the law has had so far on the NOPD’s recruiting efforts.
“It’s very difficult to find data to prove a negative easily: How many people are not applying to the New Orleans Police Department because of the domicile requirement?” Guidry said.
“We do know one piece of information that’s a hard fact: We’re down to 1,207 officers, and we’re having trouble getting a second recruit class together,” she said.
Even with five new academy classes next year, the roster of sworn officers would likely rise by only a few dozen if the attrition trends continue.
The Police and Justice Foundation said it is engineering a “world-class” recruiting campaign that so far is online only, via the website www.joinnopd.org. The site had seen just over 10,000 visitors as of Friday, with 1,439 downloading applications — more than half from outside New Orleans, according to the foundation.
“The recruiting is not just to get a bunch of cops in the door. It’s to get police officers that are highly trained,” said foundation co-founder John Casbon. “We cannot give the police chief a toolbox with no tools in it. We’ve got to load him up now and hold him accountable.”
Foundation director Melanie Talia said the group would look at housing and other incentives offered by other cities to get their cops to live in the city limits.
But Councilman James Gray and some audience members suggested that New Orleans hasn’t done enough, or perhaps anything, to prod locals to join the force. “I refuse to believe we can’t find 150 people from this city who would be highly qualified, good policemen,” Gray said. “And we have failed to do that.”
Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, the dissenting vote on the committee, argued first for “a comprehensive strategy that we embrace holistically.”
“We have an issue of public confidence. We have an issue of lack of morale. We have the (federal) consent decree” governing police reforms, Cantrell said. “I don’t want to talk about incentives, I want to know what they are.”
Jim Gallagher of the local Fraternal Order of Police laid out a grim picture of the NOPD’s staffing prospects under the current trends.
The way things are going, he said, it will take a decade to reach Serpas’ target number of 1.575 officers.
“I pray every day that a police officer is not seriously injured or worse because he responded to an emergency call without backup,” he said.
Some speakers cited the comparatively high cost of living in New Orleans as another reason not to insist that cops, who start at less than $40,000 a year, move into the city. But other locals kept to the homegrown argument.
“The idea that we can’t find qualified people on our home turf is both ludicrous and an insult to the young adults in our city who study and want to pursue jobs in the criminal justice field,” said Pat Bryant, reading from a letter penned by the political group Justice and Beyond, which includes several well-known pastors, NAACP branch President Danatus King and others.
He called the proposed ordinance “just plain economic senselessness.”
Clarkson and Guidry voted to send the measure to the full council, which is scheduled to take it up Thursday.
Gray is not a committee member and so could not vote. Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell also attended the meeting but did not indicate her position.