NOPD to wear cameras

New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said Wednesday his office is buying hundreds of cameras for officers to wear on their uniforms beginning as soon as late this year. He called the devices “the future of American law enforcement.”

Serpas announced the move at a City Council committee meeting called to discuss recruiting troubles in a department that has lost more than 300 officers — about 20 percent of the force — since Serpas became superintendent in 2010.

It has lost about 100 officers a year for five years.

A hiring freeze has only lately been lifted.

The “body-worn cameras” are not mandated under a federal consent decree governing NOPD reforms that Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed last year with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The consent decree calls for cameras in every patrol car — a mandate that NOPD spokeswoman Remi Braden said the department has fulfilled.

Serpas said the body cameras are a major step that other police agencies across the country have embraced, both to protect the public and to forestall false complaints against officers.

“Imagine a day in the city of New Orleans, in the not too distant future, where every single time we pull over a car, we ask somebody who they are or what they’re doing, that that entire incident is audiotaped and videotaped,” Serpas said. “We’re very excited about it. It’s coming.”

The details remain to be worked out, but Braden said officers will begin wearing the cameras either late this year or early next year.

How many officers will be available to wear them was the main topic of the hearing.

Serpas touted the department’s recruiting campaign, but he acknowledged the city’s domicile ordinance, which requires all new city employees to live in New Orleans, may be getting in the way.

In the latest recruit class of 27, two members are “lateral” transfers from nearby agencies. The planned next class of 30 remains a work in progress. So far, despite a new website that has drawn more than 7,000 hits, the department has managed to sign up just five candidates for that class.

“We need to make sure that if we’re competing for people, we’re as competitive as everybody else,” Serpas said.

“It is a fact: If you’re trying to recruit a police officer who has invested their life in that other place, they’re going to consider what the laws of residency are.”

Police officer groups have fought the residency requirement, which was reinstated this year after being suspended after Hurricane Katrina.

Along with a new policy against visible tattoos on police officers and a new, city-run system for doling out off-duty paid detail work for officers, the residency law is contributing to a hiring crisis, police groups argue.

“Get rid of (the domicile rule). Suspend it for a year. You don’t need it. Nobody calling 911 is asking where the officer goes home,” said Raymond Burkart III, an attorney and spokesman for the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge.

It’s hard enough, Burkart argued, to find qualified candidates willing to work for a maligned department under the watchful eye of a federal judge.

“When I talk to officers of other jurisdictions, they’re terrified about what this office is going to be. They believe they’re instantaneously going to be branded as thugs and thieves and hoodlums and liars, because they work for an organization operating under a consent decree,” he said.

Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson retracted her support for the domicile law Wednesday.

“We need instant police to catch up” with attrition, Clarkson said.

“In my opinion, we have to change the domicile rule to do it. We should be able to build a city with city residents. ... That’s a noble feeling, but we don’t have enough money to be noble right now. We have to steal from our neighbors.”

The department stands at about 1,200 officers.

In most of the city’s eight police districts, Serpas said, the day shift consists of only six or seven street officers.

According to police statistics, half of the 110 officers who left the NOPD last year resigned, 35 percent retired and 15 percent were dismissed.

Serpas said he hopes to field three recruit classes next year, with funding help from the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, donated work from Trumpet Advertising, $50,000 in grants from the business community and — he hopes — good publicity from the reality murder investigation show “First 48.”

The show, which has been filming in town for several months, is due to start airing New Orleans segments in January.

Serpas described a full-court press on college job fairs, national advertising and the new website,

But the recruiting push, which has been under way for about seven weeks, so far is struggling to gain traction.

One stalling point: The City Council has yet to commit any money to the effort, and council members were decidedly noncommittal Wednesday.

Opening up promotion opportunities for officers has helped, but ultimately only more money will do the trick, said Eric Hessler, an attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans.

“The people that apply online probably Google the NOPD. You’re going to find some pretty unflattering things,” Hessler said. “You can advertise a 1972 Pinto across the nation. You’re not going to find too many people interested in buying.”

In the meantime, council members questioned the city’s chief administrative officer, Andy Kopplin, about whether there’s any money for recruiting in the $7 million that Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration earmarked this year to begin funding police reforms under the consent decree.

Kopplin said about $4 million of the money has been committed, and that the administration is hoping to save the rest to cover part of the expected price tag for reforms to the Orleans Parish Prison that Sheriff Marlin Gusman, the feds and inmate advocates hashed out last year in a separate consent decree.

U.S. District Judge Lance Africk is expected to rule soon on just how much the city will need to pay this year for those changes.

Kopplin suggested that the city’s drawn-out court battle with Gusman over the cost of the jail reforms has at least tempered the potential for a massive, immediate hit to the city’s budget.