Despite what may be its most aggressive hiring campaign in history, the New Orleans Police Department is barely moving the needle on staffing.
Only 10 more officers are serving with the NOPD now than a year ago, even though the department graduated several classes of recruits during that time and launched a nationwide effort to bolster the size of the force.
NOPD brass expect at least two more recruit classes could bolster the numbers by a few dozen more in coming months. But various issues, including more than a dozen dismissals from the department, have hindered efforts to boost the force's size, Superintendent Michael Harrison told City Council members Friday as they reviewed the NOPD's proposed $163 million budget for 2017.
The 2017 spending plan is $1.1 million more than in 2016, including money for 150 new recruits, though the amount of city funding will increase more substantially to replace expiring federal grants.
But it would take tens of millions more dollars and hundreds of more officers to meet the staffing recommendations made by consultants in a report released this week.
Outside of sluggish hiring, Harrison was able to point to a number of bright spots for the department.
A recent survey showed public satisfaction with the NOPD at its highest level in eight years. Response times to calls for assistance remain high but are coming down. Internal reorganizations have put more officers on the streets. And a variety of initiatives are in place to improve accountability in the department.
Other initiatives now underway include installing cameras that can read license plates — used to track suspects' vehicles — and quadrupling the number of rifles the department has, in order to deal with active shooter situations.
Including a new class of recruits that graduated Friday morning, the NOPD has 1,163 officers, Harrison said. That's exactly the same number it had at the start of the year.
The department will officially expand by another few dozen on Monday, when a new recruit class starts, but it will take six months of training before those officers hit the streets.
By the end of 2016, Harrison said, he expects the NOPD to have 1,206 officers on staff.
The 2017 budget includes money for an additional 150 officers, as it did last year.
Harrison told the council the numbers this year are lower than expected in part because 13 officers had to be dismissed from the force and two died.
The overall staffing level is far below Mayor Mitch Landrieu's goal of eventually increasing the department to 1,600 officers, something that the administration had said would require a tax increase that voters rejected earlier this year.
It also is lower than the recommendations in a new report by Berkshire Advisors that called for a staffing level between 1,393 and 1,483 officers.
The difference between Landrieu's goal and the advisers' recommendation is largely the result of different assumptions about how many police functions can be handled by civilian employees at the department, Harrison said.
"The Berkshire recommendations give us a path to grow the department. However, they cannot be implemented overnight," he said.
Bringing the NOPD up to ideal staffing levels would cost an additional $20 million to $25 million a year, said Jonathan Wisbey, deputy chief of staff for the department.
"We're not making much progress on getting to whatever number you want it to be," said Bob Simms, a French Quarter resident who oversees a special detail there through the French Quarter Management District. "We need a retention plan, something to keep people on the job."
In the meantime, the department is planning to spend $11 million on overtime next year to ensure enough officers are on the streets, particularly during special events, Harrison said. That's about $1 million more than the expected final overtime figure for this year.
"Because we had good weather during Mardi Gras and had higher numbers coming to the city, we had to flex ourselves and pay overtime to provide public safety," Harrison said. "We had a number of events where we had to pay overtime because we had a successful event."
Beyond the NOPD budget itself, the city also will spend about $7.5 million on equipment and staffing needed to implement the terms of the federal consent decree covering the department.
A number of other new initiatives are in the works.
The department plans to hire more staff analysts next year to improve its analysis of crime trends.
It's also planning on implementing a false alarm ordinance passed last year that would allow officers to ignore repeated calls from faulty alarms. A letter sent to the top 50 worst offenders has already reduced false alarm calls by 40 percent, Harrison said, meaning the department doesn't have to spend as much time responding to them.
The department is also preparing to roll out a new system that will allow it to track vehicles it is seeking. License plate-reading cameras will be installed in 17 locations starting next month, with another 15 coming in a second phase and even more at a later time.
The department is also preparing to buy 300 rifles that would be stored at its offices or in vehicles to deal with active shooter situations, Harrison said. At present, it has only about 100 rifles, he said.
That raised some concern from Councilman James Gray, who worried about militarizing the police force. "I hope 300 rifles are not an indication that police are going to look like they're walking down the street in Iraq," Gray said.