Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Police Department recruits will no longer have to have 60 hours of college credits, according to a decision Monday by the New Orleans Civil Service Commission.

The New Orleans Civil Service Commission agreed Monday to drop a requirement that all Police Department recruits must have 60 hours of college credits or two years of military experience.

Police Superintendent Michael Harrison sought the change, saying it would help the understaffed NOPD recruit new officers faster.

The change, which the City Council also backed last week, passed 4-0 as a steady stream of speakers spoke in favor of dropping the mandate, which former Superintendent Ronal Serpas pushed through in 2010.

“While we still want to keep the robustness and rigor of the selection process, we’re only modifying application criteria,” Harrison said. “So it expands the application pool exponentially by not turning away people out there who are holding down good jobs.”

Harrison said there are plenty of people in New Orleans and nationally who would meet all of the department’s other requirements but can’t get over the educational hurdle.

The U.S. Justice Department’s consent decree monitor has expressed concern that the relaxed requirement will reduce the quality of recruits but has not taken a position on the issue, Harrison said.

In their assessment of the proposal, the Civil Service Department staff deferred to the NOPD. When the department initially approved the requirement under Serpas, there was literature to support having a college requirement, staff member Amy Trepagnier said.

However, she said, with the addition of a panel interview earlier in the application process, Civil Service believes the screening process can separate qualified candidates who may not have any college education from the rest of the pack.

Harrison said human resources specialists would be joining the panel to help make the interview a more holistic assessment of a candidate’s value.

Commissioner Tania Tetlow asked that language be explicitly included in the job description to ensure that education along with military and work experience is a factor when considering a prospective recruit.

The application process includes a number of written assessments, background checks and psychiatric evaluations.

Last year, the department had 3,000 applications but only 3 percent of them made it to the training phase.

Harrison said 1,000 applicants were turned away before being considered simply because of the education requirement. These people applied even though the job description explicitly stated that an applicant had to have completed 60 hours of college or two years in the military.

The department now has 1,158 officers. Harrison hopes to push that number up to 1,600.

Eric Hessler, of the Police Association of New Orleans, was among those who spoke in favor of the change.

Hessler and others including Claude Schlesinger, a lawyer with the local Fraternal Order of Police, voiced some concern that the education requirements are not consistent for each rank in the department.

For example, Hessler said, to be promoted to sergeant, an officer must have 60 hours of college, and to be promoted to lieutenant, one must have a bachelor’s degree. But to wear the white shirt of commander, he said, an officer doesn’t have to have achieved any set level of education.

“It begs the question,” Hessler said. “Why do we have educational requirements for some supervisors, but the higher you go, the less the education requirements become? It’s inconsistent.”

In light of removing the education requirement for new officers, Hessler and PANO want the department to do away with the education mandates for certain levels in the command structure.

The matter of how to incentivize officers to continue their education came up as well.

Donovan Livaccari, of the Fraternal Order of Police, urged the NOPD to examine how it could increase the incentives that come with increased educational achievement.

Livaccari said officers in the Houston Police Department with a bachelor’s degree make $3,640 more per year and officers with master’s degrees make $6,240 more. In New Orleans, by comparison, an officer with an associate degree gets $1,000 more. Having a bachelor’s degree brings $2,000 more.

He also asked the department to try to bulk up the educational opportunities at local universities for officers.

“With the exception of the free tuition that officers can receive at Delgado,” Livaccari said, “a lot of the other incentives that are available for officers are really negligible.”

After the proposal was approved, commission Chairwoman Michelle Craig asked the police to assign someone to look into seeing that more educational opportunities for officers are created.

Follow Benjamin Oreskes on Twitter, @boreskes.