The newest faces of the New Orleans Police Department are a diverse bunch.
Among them are a former UNO baseball pitcher whose recent jobs included termite inspector and country club pool guy, a state probation and parole officer whose sister is former City Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer, a Cuban-born Floridian with an MBA, the ex-manager of a California barbecue joint and a former Taxicab Bureau investigator who was suspended by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration for supposedly fudging his time sheets while working undercover as a cab driver to root out an apparent inspection-sticker scam.
They are among a group of 29 freshly hired cops in Class No. 171, the second Police Academy class of the year and the fruit of a major NOPD recruiting push that started slowly but is fast gaining steam, officials told a City Council committee Wednesday.
Newly minted NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison appeared before the Criminal Justice Committee along with New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation leaders to tout significant strides in the pace of hiring for a department that has dwindled to fewer than 1,100 sworn cops.
That’s about 30 percent below where the force stood in 2009, before Landrieu packed the department’s recruiting apparatus in mothballs with a citywide hiring freeze aimed at helping to stanch a massive budget gap.
Landrieu’s campaign pledge to field five recruiting classes this year has long since been discarded as the city has struggled to bring qualified recruits into the fold. However, Harrison said the department is on pace to launch a third class before year’s end, and that a growing momentum and an increase in the recruiting budget “will position the department to hire 150 new recruits in 2015.”
“It’s a full-court press strategy,” he said.
According to the foundation, which helped launch a new online application process last year, the number of applicants per month has moved above 300, while the city has quickened an interminably long application process that sent many impatient prospects packing.
The average time to complete the background investigation for applicants has shrunk from 76 days to 52, Harrison told the committee, and he hopes to get it down to 40 days before long.
More money in the city’s 2015 budget to beef up a depleted Civil Service Department will help speed the testing process as well, he said.
Harrison and Sandy Shilstone, who heads the foundation, said they’re so confident about the demand among recruits for NOPD jobs that they plan to ask U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan to raise a cap on the number of recruits in any one recruit class.
A 30-person cap on recruit classes is spelled out in a federal consent decree governing an array of reforms to the embattled department. The number is designed to ensure effective training, but Harrison said he would like the academy to take on bigger classes, in part so it doesn’t have to hire more instructors.
While the department has hired just four recruits for a third class this year, Harrison said he expects to hire between 30 and 50 recruits by the time that class is scheduled to begin in December.
Along with the four officer hires, another 19 applicants have been hired as police aides while they wait out the background process — a move designed to ensure they don’t bolt.
Officials touted the impact of a website the foundation launched last year, www.joinnopd.org, which has dramatically boosted the number of applicants. Under former NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas, the department and the city reduced some barriers for applicants, including removing a residency requirement for police and other first responders.
But until lately, the process has weeded out the vast bulk of those applicants, often because they didn’t meet education or military experience requirements from the start but applied anyway.
A half million dollars has been budgeted for recruiting and marketing next year, including a major contribution from the foundation.
“We think we’re on our way now to really beefing up a very qualified staff and a qualified department,” Shilstone said.
In the meantime, Landrieu’s office has budgeted a 5 percent pay raise for officers next year — the first across-the-board increase in seven years.
That figure still falls shy of what police organizations say officers deserve and what the Civil Service Department recently determined is needed to bring officers’ pay up to regional minimums.
Jimmy Gallagher, of the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge, praised the recruiting effort but splashed some cold water on the largely positive report to the council. He noted that the NOPD continues to lose more than 100 officers each year to retirement, resignation and firings.
At this rate, he said, it will take decades to rebuild the force to its former size. He argued for a greater push to hire away law enforcement officers from outside agencies.
“I believe the answer is an aggressive lateral hiring process,” Gallagher said. “And we’re going to need more than a 5 percent raise to achieve that goal.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.