New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison will have the blessing of the City Council as he seeks to strike down a requirement that most new recruits must have completed about two years of college to join the force.
Harrison has said the rule restricts the pool of candidates the department can consider as it seeks to replenish its greatly depleted ranks.
While the council has no say in whether the city’s Civil Service Commission approves Harrison’s plan, council members on Thursday endorsed the idea of casting a wider net for applicants, though several said such a move should be paired with a rigorous application process.
“You have an opportunity to take a close look at the individual,” Councilman James Gray said. “We all want the best-qualified police we can get. It’s just that some of us believe that (educational requirement) did not produce those results for us.”
Those looking to join the NOPD must have either 60 hours of college credit or two years of military experience to have their applications even considered under a requirement that was imposed in 2010 by former Superintendent Ronal Serpas. On Monday, Harrison will ask the Civil Service Commission for permission to eliminate that requirement, which he said caused about 1,000 applicants to be turned away before they were even considered last year.
The move, which will be paired with changes to the interviewing and screening process aimed at beefing up the scrutiny of potential officers, is intended as a way to help the department meet its goal of having 1,600 officers. It has about 1,160 at present.
While the monitors watching the department’s adherence to a federal consent decree have voiced concern about the change, council members argued the educational requirement was “arbitrary” and did not guarantee the hiring of good police officers.
“I don’t think any college credits give you any more integrity or character,” Councilman Jason Williams said.
Council President Stacy Head did voice some concern, saying studies have shown higher levels of education for police officers lead to better decision-making, particularly when it comes to using force. However, she said she supported the idea of having a panel look at applicants individually rather than disqualifying people based on a single factor.
The department already has responded to the staffing shortage by moving some officers from desk duties to the streets and is hiring recruiters to drum up potential applicants. More than 70 officers who are no longer on the force have responded to the department’s call to fill the ranks of its Reserve Division, Harrison said.
The department also is looking into ways to reduce the amount of time officers spend responding to false alarms. Additional officers could be freed up if the department could come up with ways to use technology to free officers from having to spend time taking down reports on lost or stolen property.
There have been some signs of progress on the recruiting front. Two classes totaling 58 recruits are working their way through the Training Academy right now, and officials are looking at ways to expand the training facilities to handle larger classes, Harrison said.
The NOPD’s staffing level may not be the most crucial issue for getting a handle on the city’s crime rate, Gray said, implying societal factors are important as well.
“I may be one of the few people who am not that concerned about getting the numbers up real high,” Gray said. “Crime is not a function of the number of policemen on the street but a function of the other things we do in this city.”
Harrison reacted somewhat skeptically when asked whether the NOPD should cede some of its turf, such as the French Quarter, to State Police on a more permanent basis — an idea that has percolated as troopers begin an extended version of their yearly Carnival deployment in the city.
Asked by Williams whether a “special state policing district” downtown would free up enough officers that the department could meet its desired staffing levels in other areas of the city, Harrison said there would need to be more conversations about “how that looks.” And, in arguments that echo those made by leaders of the city’s police unions, he suggested the NOPD is the agency best qualified to police the city.
“We have a certain type of culture, a certain type of training,” Harrison said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.