Lionel Coleman does not know whom to call anymore. In the wake of a wide-scale New Orleans Police Department redeployment, the community relations officers who once helped him tow abandoned cars from Central City have been put back on the streets to answer calls.
“Right now, today, it don’t work for us,” Coleman, the vice chairman of the 6th District Police Community Advisory Board, said of the redeployment. “When my community members reach out to me, what can I tell them? Call the police?”
Coleman was among several speakers venting their frustrations to court-appointed monitors of the NOPD’s reform plan on Wednesday night. They criticized the loss of some special programs as part of the redeployment, which department officials instituted to reduce sky-high response times to 911 calls.
The federal monitors responded that they too have serious concerns about the future of community policing at the NOPD.
Residents soon may add another gripe to their lists when the Police Department shutters most district stations at night in order to put their desk officers back on the streets.
The ultimate goal of the redeployment, police officials said, is to have enough officers on the streets to answer 90 percent of emergency calls within seven minutes.
A few months ago, the NOPD had more than a dozen community coordinating sergeants and quality-of-life officers, who answered complaints about everything from abandoned cars to overgrown lots.
Citing a need to have more officers answering 911 calls, the NOPD moved 54 cops from community relations and other duties to patrol duty in February. To compensate, the department has said it hopes to have every officer on the force spend 15 minutes out of each hour on community duties.
Department spokesman Tyler Gamble said there is no “electronic, uniform way of clocking in and clocking out with your community policing. It’s something that’s really coming from the top down; we are continuing to educate and engage our officers to really explain how that works.”
Jonathan Aronie, the lead federal monitor, said both the monitors and U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan think the notion that officers who are busy answering calls for service will carve out a quarter of their time for other tasks is unrealistic.
“You know what happens: The work fills the time allotted. So that (idea) didn’t work for us,” Aronie said. “What we said is, ‘No, that doesn’t cut it. We need a plan, a real plan.’ ”
That plan is still unfinished. Gamble said Lt. Jonette Williams has been selected to chart the new strategy.
At weekly district briefings and elsewhere, meanwhile, many residents have been bemoaning the loss of the quality-of-life officers. Dozens of New Orleans East residents signed their names to a petition filed in federal court on April 6 begging Morgan to have 7th District Officer Eddie Dema put back on quality-of-life duty.
The residents said Dema is “professional, knowledgeable, caring and, most of all, has earned the trust of residents throughout the area. In addition, he is well versed with the city ordinances and judicial system.”
But the Police Department said duties requiring knowledge of city ordinances would be better handled by City Hall officials than police officers.
“Blight, tall grass, things of that nature — those aren’t police functions,” Gamble said. “There’s a 311 system in place for residents to call and report those sorts of issues.”
Coleman and other residents speaking Wednesday night scoffed at the idea that 311 can replace a cop on their speed-dial.
Other residents, meanwhile, raised concerns over the loss of a program that fielded two officers dedicated to communicating with Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking city residents.
“We are very troubled and disappointed by the impact of the redeployment plan on limited English-proficiency communities, primarily Latino and Vietnamese communities,” said David Douglass, the deputy federal monitor. “We think it was not well-thought-out with respect to the impact on those communities.”
Another form of public contact will vanish in coming weeks when the Police Department closes every district station at night, except the 8th District station on Royal Street in the French Quarter.
Officers will be working out of the seven other district stations, but they will be closed to the general public from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Gamble said each of the stations handles, on average, one walk-in every other day and only eight emergencies per year. In the future, residents will just have to call.
“We believe (officers’) time is better spent on the streets, in neighborhoods, answering calls for service,” Gamble said.