The 29 men and women who graduated from the New Orleans Police Department’s training academy on Wednesday were treated to an unusual keynote speaker: the federal judge who will decide if and when the department has shaped up under the terms of a court-imposed reform plan.
U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who has rarely made public statements about the department outside her courtroom, told the new officers that the federal consent decree will ultimately benefit both the public and the department, despite sometimes strenuous objections to it from organizations of NOPD officers.
“I think it’s a win-win situation,” Morgan said, noting that she has pushed for clearer policies, better training and even improvements to the academy’s facilities. “The people get constitutional policing, and the NOPD gets the resources it needs to be the best of the best.”
Morgan did not hint at whether she will bend on the city’s most recent request for relief from the consent decree’s sweeping dictates. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who has promised to put hundreds of more officers on the street, wants permission to expand recruit classes from 30 trainees to 50.
Morgan will hold a hearing on the issue Sept. 24, but she has so far resisted increasing the class sizes, citing concern that the quality of the training might drop as a result.
Right now, the NOPD’s head count stands at 1,135 officers, down from 1,155 in June. Landrieu wants that number to grow past 1,500.
In remarks Wednesday, the mayor thanked the new officers for taking on the challenge of becoming police officers at a time of fraught police-community relations across the country and difficult reform efforts in New Orleans.
“The reason I’m so proud of you guys is because you know that you’re running to the fire,” Landrieu said. “You know that there are people still in the department today that would rather curse the darkness than light a candle.”
The graduation ceremony took place not far from where the University of New Orleans began hosting a temporary training facility for the NOPD in June. The department is renovating its 3rd District headquarters to serve as a new training academy. The old one, on Paris Avenue, was deemed inadequate by federal monitors overseeing the 2012 consent decree that Landrieu signed with the U.S. Department of Justice.
At a department commanders’ meeting later Wednesday, Police Superintendent Michael Harrison described his invitation to Morgan to speak as a “kind of olive branch.”
He also referred to a recent report that the NOPD lost seven officers to the State Police’s most recent cadet class. Pointing to troopers in the room for the weekly meeting on crime statistics, he said, “We’re all really one big family.”
Harrison said that while the State Police have seen success in attracting officers, so has the NOPD. Adopting a Massachusetts accent, he recalled how one recent recruit told him he drove all the way from “Bawston” to join the force.
The most recent class to graduate includes officers hailing from states as far away as Texas, Minnesota and Maryland, as well as Massachusetts.
“I think that is as big a story, if not more, than having lost a couple people to a sister agency,” the superintendent said.