IG report takes issue with NOPD staffing claims

As the New Orleans Police Department scrambles to hire hundreds of new officers, seeking to stem years of attrition to its depleted ranks, Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux is urging the department to make more efficient use of current manpower before signing on herds of recruits.

In a report being published Wednesday, Quatrevaux challenges the well-worn claim that NOPD is understaffed to the tune of 400 cops and recommends the department hire more civilians to handle “non-law enforcement duties” while freeing up sworn officers to handle the overwhelming number of calls for service the department receives.

“Residents’ belief that NOPD is understaffed is nourished by the small number of officers answering calls for service, officers’ lack of visibility in many neighborhoods and the extended time that citizens can wait for a police response,” the report says. “The empirical evidence confirms the anecdotal evidence: NOPD does not have enough officers assigned to platoons and answering calls for service. However, alleviating the shortage of officers answering calls for service does not necessarily mean that the department needs additional force strength.”

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas quickly rejected the report as a myopic analysis that ignores NOPD’s overall staffing needs and draws sweeping conclusions after examining only one of the department’s mandates: responding to calls for service. He said Quatrevaux’s findings do not detract from his conviction that the NOPD must bolster its ranks from the 1,149 sworn officers it currently has to 1,575, an ambitious goal that will take many months, if not years, to attain.

“I am not allowed by the people of New Orleans to only think about the blue-and-white cars,” Serpas said in a telephone interview Tuesday evening. “The person most likely to solve your child’s murder is not a police officer in a car: it’s a detective.”

The inspector general’s report seeks to highlight the importance of streamlining police resources, noting the NOPD accounts for “the single largest expenditure of the city’s general funds, and personnel cost constitutes the vast majority of the total.” City leaders have projected that law enforcement costs will only increase as a result of a federal consent decree that requires systemic changes in the long-troubled Police Department.

The report says the NOPD is squandering precious resources by assigning sworn police officers to perform desk duties and tasks like vehicle and building maintenance. In keeping with a national trend among law enforcement agencies, the inspector general recommends those officers be reassigned to patrol.

“Nonsworn staff can often perform tasks performed by a police officer at a significantly lower cost with less training,” the report says, noting new recruits require “an extensive financial investment” of six months of academy training and several months of field training before they are deployed.

In a pointed response to Quatrevaux, Serpas said it would be “illegal, unethical or inadvisable for NOPD to civilianize many of the positions” identified on a list compiled by the inspector general. The department has actively worked to civilianize other positions for years, Serpas added, but “the primary obstacle to these efforts has been a shrinking budget for civilian personnel.”

The department’s budget for civilian positions dropped by about 30 percent — from 412 to 286 — between 2005 and 2010, he said. “As the city faced severe budget issues,” Serpas said, “funding for civilians was reduced in order to retain sworn officers.”

In another finding, Quatrevaux faults the department for using vague categories to prioritize calls for service. He says the categories lack specific information, “significantly limiting information available to the officer about the nature and urgency of the call.” The report recommends the NOPD implement priority codes with more details and “specific instructions to guide the officer’s response.”

Serpas, however, said the current categories provide for up to 26 secondary categories used to reflect the seriousness of a call.

“Although the officer in the field may not always directly have knowledge of the secondary priority rating assigned to the call they are tasked with responding to, they are provided access to detailed information about the call, both through the (Computer-Aided-Dispatch) system available in their vehicles and via radio contact with the dispatcher and supervisor,” he said. “To insinuate that NOPD lacks a framework for prioritizing calls and providing vital information to officers in the field is simply inaccurate.”

According to the inspector general, the NOPD classified 22 percent of the calls for service it received in 2012 as “complaint other,” which Quatrevaux said muddled data that supervisors could have used to inform staffing and deployment needs. “The large percentage of calls in these nonspecific classifications suggests the categories may have been used as convenient catch-alls, and calls into question the integrity of the data,” the report says.

Serpas defended the practice of labeling the complaints as “other,” or Signal 21s, saying that to attempt to develop “a new signal for every type of potential incident would not only be laborious, but ultimately would limit rather than enhance NOPD’s analytical capabilities. Signal 21 complaints allow supervisors to understand how their officers’ time is spent better than a dozen additional microcategories would allow.”

The report finds that officers spend far too much time responding to burglar alarms — more than 36,000 times in 2012, or 14 percent of all citizen-generated calls for service — and also recommended the city ask State Police to patrol the interstate highways in New Orleans.

Quatrevaux’s report concludes that the NOPD “has complete control over how the organization is structured and how officers are deployed, and its leaders can make immediate policy decisions to address the shortage of officers responding to calls for service.”

“Many New Orleanians accept as an article of faith the assertion that the New Orleans Police Department is understaffed,” the report says. “Yet the steady drumbeat for a larger police force and claims of a police force in ‘crisis’ continue in the absence of verifiable evidence documenting NOPD’s personnel and operational needs.”

Serpas, however, said the study rested upon the belief that officer responses often become the only occasion in which a citizen interacts with the police — an assumption he said “runs directly contrary to community policing philosophies, which require proactive community engagement efforts outside of the traditional call-for-service paradigm.”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued a statement late Tuesday saying he “strongly disagreed” with Quatrevaux.

“I am not willing to abandon community policing because it works,” he said. “I’m not willing to cut the homicide unit or the gang unit or the domestic violence unit because they make our city safer. The people of this city have demanded more and better-trained officers, better response times, and community-oriented policing.”

Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the NOPD is at a 36-year low in staffing and the city needs to continuing hiring.

“There’s a shortage of officers in every component of the Police Department,” Goyeneche said. “We’ve paused for five years and are behind the hiring curve. We need to forge ahead in that cause.”

Greg Rusovich, a past chairman of the Business Council of New Orleans, said business owners have become increasingly concerned about the lack of officers in the city and the potential impact on tourism, an invaluable economic draw.

“It’s unacceptable, and we can’t have that as a city,” Rusovich said. “You can’t have people walking around in fear, and frankly we’re heading that way” if the city doesn’t hire more officers.

The report comes as a new recruit class on Tuesday began 25 weeks of training. While officials said the class has more than 30 members, only 29 people were seated in desks at the police academy to hear brief welcoming speeches from Serpas and Landrieu.

The number of officers and how they are deployed has frustrated some officers who complain there are too few of them on the streets at any given time — leading to long response times for routine calls and understaffed scenes for major crimes. Serpas, however, swatted away suggestions that the ranks are too thin to appropriately respond to calls.

He said overtime is being used to keep extra officers on the streets. At other times, he said, officers assigned to units that do not regularly answer calls for service will be dispatched to respond to those calls.

“We’re all in the fight to answer the radio,” he said Tuesday. “That’s what we’re all doing.”

Advocate staff writer Danny Monteverde contributed to this report. Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian .