At a time when a spike in homicides and a high-profile string of armed robberies put a spotlight on the New Orleans Police Department, residents recently gave individual cops increasingly high marks for competence, but fewer than half said they were happy with the New Orleans Police Department overall.
Satisfaction with the force dropped from 60 percent in March 2014 to 48 percent in February and remained at that same level in August, according to a survey released Wednesday by the New Orleans Crime Coalition. Forty-four percent of residents said they were dissatisfied with the department.
Loyola University professor Michael Cowan, chairman of the group that commissioned the survey, said he thinks the sagging poll numbers can be traced to one primary cause: the force’s falling head count.
“I would attribute it to the crisis of police force size,” Cowan said. “People have made the connection that there are important things the department is having a hard time doing.”
Forty-five percent of residents said they were dissatisfied with NOPD response times, against 42 percent who were happy with how quickly police arrive at crime scenes.
Cowan’s explanation could solve one paradox uncovered in the group’s latest poll. Although fewer than half of New Orleanians are satisfied with the NOPD, 59 percent say they are satisfied with cops’ honesty and integrity, and 63 percent endorse their competence.
In free-form responses to pollsters’ questions, many also said they recognize that police have tough jobs.
Attitudes on those qualities are way up from August 2010, when 37 percent of those polled were satisfied with the honesty and integrity of police officers, and 46 percent thought cops were competent.
In July 2010, four officers were indicted in the Danziger Bridge shooting of several innocent people shortly after Hurricane Katrina. That high-profile incident helped spur a Justice Department investigation that found widespread misconduct at the NOPD, leading to a subsequent reform agreement.
The federal judge overseeing that consent decree will hold the latest public hearing on its progress Thursday.
At a public hearing conducted by the consent decree monitors on Wednesday night, Leroy Simpson said he recalled a time when his father warned him not to go anywhere near police. Now, he said, he feels comfortable chatting with them.
“This is nothing like 20 years ago,” Simpson said. “This department is brand new.”
Still, Simpson said, he believes the NOPD has a long way to go in improving what he described as a forbidding recruiting process.
Between 2011 and March 2014, the NOPD was also able to maintain a relatively high overall satisfaction rating of around 60 percent in the Crime Coalition polls. Then, in February, the number of respondents satisfied with the force dropped to 48 percent, and the number remained there in the latest survey.
“Unless we deal with this manpower problem, I don’t see how the Police Department can move these numbers very much,” Cowan said.
The NOPD’s head count stood at 1,135 officers earlier this month, down from 1,141 in June 2014. Roughly 1,525 officers were on the force in 2009 before a freeze on new hires was implemented to save money. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has set a goal of roughly 1,600 police.
Cowan said he does not believe the declining satisfaction level stems from the changeover in leadership at the department last year from former Superintendent Ronal Serpas to Michael Harrison. The Crime Coalition does not poll on attitudes toward individual chiefs, but Cowan said he has not seen significant dislike for Harrison expressed in free-form poll responses.
“In my mind, the previous superintendent and the current superintendent both had a manpower crisis that they were managing, and it got into an acute state just as Superintendent Harrison was coming on,” Cowan said. “So I don’t attribute that drop to his leadership.”
Somewhat surprisingly in a city that is often divided by race, the poll did not find significant disparities in how black and white residents see the police.
White and African-American residents expressed equal satisfaction with the department, at 48 percent. A majority of respondents in every section of the city said they were happy with how the police performed in their own neighborhood. And the most satisfied NOPD district was the 6th, home to Central City.
“That district is one that has really embraced community policing, and I think it shows up in these numbers,” Cowan said.