New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison has revealed new details about a major restructuring of the force that is meant to put nearly 100 more officers on the streets. He also said the police unions have given the plan their backing, though union leaders expressed some caution.
The Police Department hopes to use the extra officers to dramatically reduce response times so that 90 percent of the highest-priority 911 calls are answered in seven minutes or less.
In a meeting Thursday with The Advocate’s editorial board, Harrison acknowledged concerns about the plan from a federal judge and residents worried about losing each police district’s quality-of-life officer, but he said he had a larger message for all those worried about the department’s skyrocketing response times:
“We heard you,” he said. “The top priority is providing safety, and so that’s what we’re doing now.”
The Police Department restructuring comes at the same time as Harrison and Mayor Mitch Landrieu try to sell the public on a proposed property tax hike that would pay for hiring more officers as the force tries to reach an aggressive goal of 1,600 sworn personnel by 2020. To do so, the NOPD will have to grow by 90 officers a year. Last year, it added a net of 31.
Harrison said that in the redeployment planned for next month, officers will be moved to patrol duty from previous jobs in technology, fleet maintenance, administration, quality of life, community coordinating, night watch desk duty and public affairs.
Loss of the quality-of-life, community coordinating and desk officer positions — all of which face the public in a way few other jobs in the department do — may prove to be the most controversial. Those officers attend public meetings and carry residents’ concerns back to district commanders, serving as a liaison between some of the city’s most politically attuned citizens and their police.
Harrison said he already heard concerns at a meeting with the Uptown 2nd District’s anti-crime council.
“The citizens who are very engaged love them and rely on them,” he said of some of the officers due to be put on the streets. “They’ve created the dependence on that one person, which has really been contradictory to the real theme of community policing — that we all should be doing it.”
In place of those positions, Harrison said, headquarters plans to program time into every officer’s shift to interact with citizens. The department also is exploring the creation of a centralized community affairs office at headquarters. Harrison said the NOPD will also be combining, into one role, the two officers in every district who compile weekly statistics and oversee arrest documents.
In total, the aim is to put 94 additional officers on the streets shortly after the end of Carnival season, increasing the number of patrol officers by 40 percent. Many of those officers’ current jobs will instead be filled by newly hired civilians.
The changes will not affect the SWAT team, the Traffic Division’s fatality and hit-and-run units, the Homicide Section, the Special Victims Section and a special anti-gang unit, Harrison said.
One potential roadblock to the city’s plan appears to be giving way. Representatives for the NOPD’s two major labor groups said they back the plan’s general outlines, while cautioning they have heard few specifics.
“I am in favor of restructuring the department to eliminate some nonessential services and folding them into essential services, such as calls for help,” said Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans. “Some of the more mundane administrative tasks, I think, can be accomplished in a different way.”
Glasser said he has long urged the department to do away with the district statistics position, which he called tedious and pointless. He was more skeptical about putting night watch desk officers on the street. He said that would be tantamount to closing district stations at night.
Harrison disputed that claim.
“I can’t say I’m in favor of closing a police station anytime,” Glasser said. “To me, that’s a last resort, not a first one.”
Donovan Livaccari, a spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police, said he sees the need for more patrol officers but that Harrison is downplaying the significance of some current positions. He said “mechanics,” for example, are keeping cruisers’ dashboard cameras operating in addition to changing oil.
“These folks they are moving were not sitting around twiddling their thumbs,” Livaccari said. “If the jobs they were doing are performed satisfactorily by someone else, then great. Otherwise, it is a Band-Aid to the real solution, which is to hire more people.”
Harrison, in the editorial board meeting, acknowledged that some officers may choose to retire rather than return to the streets. That could boomerang on his goal of reducing officer attrition. Last year the force lost 105 officers or recruits. To meet its goal of 1,600 officers, the NOPD hopes to cut the annual attrition number down to 90.
Harrison met with U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, federal monitors and representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday to outline his plan. All of those parties exert significant influence over the department’s operations under a 2012 reform agreement the city signed with the federal government.
The monitors wrote in a July report that police supervisors were already overburdened with administrative tasks, forcing them to spend less time keeping an eye on their subordinates. How the loss of more administrators to street patrol duty might affect the department’s consent decree compliance is unclear.
Harrison said Morgan has expressed concerns about his plan but that the shifts are necessary.
“Processes are never higher than people,” he said. “The paragraphs in the consent decree are important, but they’re never more important than the lives and safety of people.”
Morgan rarely makes public comments. The first sign of the judge’s attitude may come during a Feb. 18 court hearing.