Our Views: Build force at NOPD

There may never be a good time for a critical report, in City Hall’s opinion, but the worst time is just before an upcoming tax election. Icing on the bad timing cake: The report suggesting the Police Department doesn’t use its current staffing well comes as the mayor and other officials were welcoming in, with ceremony, another new class of recruits at the police academy.

The mayor and the police superintendent were sharply critical of the report from Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux. Superintendent Ronal Serpas picked apart — with justice, often enough — some of the report’s findings, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu “sharply disagreed” with it.

That’s more than just a political response, even given the bad political timing.

The Legislature has authorized a potential tax election to expand the police force and pay other pressing public safety bills in the city. That election hasn’t been called yet, but the IG report isn’t exactly fuel for a City Hall campaign.

We share City Hall’s concerns with any sweeping conclusion that New Orleans doesn’t need a larger number of police officers.

“The empirical evidence confirms the anecdotal evidence: NOPD does not have enough officers assigned to platoons and answering calls for service,” the IG report said. “However, alleviating the shortage of officers answering calls for service does not necessarily mean that the department needs additional force strength.”

Yes, response times for calls should be faster, and, yes, there may well be ways to reduce the number of supervisors and effectively get more boots on the ground for NOPD.

So, despite the defensive response at City Hall, there may be wisdom in some of the IG observations, based in part on the IG’s Office hiring a national expert to look at staffing levels. That is what IGs ought to do, but as Quatrevaux himself said in releasing the report, “There is no accepted methodology for measuring the size of police departments.”

The report said only 21 percent of officers were actually responding to calls, based on May 2013 data.

There is no doubt that responding to a huge number of silent burglar alarms, or working fender-benders, consumes the time of the patrol officers.

What should be weighted against these observations, though, are labor-intensive goals of the force. Those include not only the staffing of detective units that work murders and narcotics cases but also community policing techniques that involve officers working their beats in neighborhoods.

Maybe there’s no accepted methodology for measuring the size of police forces, but there is a lot of experience in neighborhoods and the gut instincts of the people of New Orleans: We need a stronger and more effective force.

“We are short of officers on the street; that’s a bad thing. We can get there,” Quatrevaux said. “We don’t have to hire another 300 officers.”

We think the first is true, but we question whether we can get there without significant new hiring, not simply replacing the officers who leave or retire.