By Blake Paterson
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Lawyer
NEW ORLEANS – Cara Cummings moved across the country to work for the New Orleans Police Department, intending to trade her job as a sheriff’s deputy in Vermont for a job patrolling the streets of the Crescent City.
But two weeks before she was supposed to graduate from the NOPD’s police academy, she dropped out. The mood among rank and file officers was too “depressing”, she said.
Passionate about law enforcement, the 25-year-old instead turned her sights several miles west to the Kenner Police Department, and on Thursday she was one of a dozen new officers to graduate from its academy.
“From 1,300 miles away, the NOPD looks like a great, progressive department,” she said. “Once you get into it, not so much.”
Despite a series of recruiting initiatives, the NOPD is struggling to rebuild its police force, which has dropped by nearly 300 officers in the past four years, with no sign of reversing the trend.
As of last week, the NOPD had 944 officers, including recruits, down from nearly 1,200 officers at the end of 2019.
At the same time, suburban law enforcement agencies across the region say they are relatively well-staffed and are avoiding the same surge in resignations and retirements. Some have even seen their ranks grow.
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, which last year convinced voters to approve a property tax to increase wages, has 34 vacancies out of 618 positions in its enforcement divisions, which include patrol, special operations and investigations.
On the north coast, St. Tammany Parish’s Sheriff’s Office 45 vacancies out of 523 budgeted positions – a 92% staffing rate – among roles that include both enforcement and corrections.
And for the first time in years, the Slidell Police Department is fully staffed — thanks in part to the NOPD.
Over the past three years, the suburban police force has hired eight former New Orleans police officers, a boon to a 120-officer department.
“We have no openings and a waiting list to hire people, many of whom are NOPD officers,” said Daniel Seuzeneau, the Slidell Police Department’s chief administrative officer.
That’s despite the fact that sergeants at the Slidell Police Department make about $20,000 less than their counterparts in New Orleans.
“The officers who come here make a lot less money,” Seuzeneau said. “They like the atmosphere. I can’t answer why.”
Thursday’s graduation ceremony in Kenner offered a look at why some suburban departments are winning the competition for officers.
Transferred from a Dallas police department, Trey Carter considered working for the NOPD, but worried that if his life was in danger, he wouldn’t have enough back-up.
“If something happened to me in Kenner, a lot of people would show up — in less than two minutes,” he said.
Jonathan Dunn said he would have applied to the NOPD only as a “last resort,” also citing concerns over “low manpower.”
The 22-year-old college graduate received offers from both JPSO and Kenner, but decided on the latter, adding that the department’s acquisition of new radios and vehicles helped sway him.
Kenner Police Chief Keith Conley, who took office in July, has made recruiting new officers a top priority, and in September he created a position to oversee those efforts.
Officer Ricky Pabst, who took on that role, now travels to college campuses and job fairs in what he calls the “recruiter mobile”: an SUV emblazoned with recruiting information, including a QR code that allows applicants to send direct messages to Pabst.
Conley also increased the starting pay for new officers in Kenner to $52,000 a year, slightly higher than that offered by the NOPD.
Still, Kenner can’t compete with the NOPD’s generous pay scale, which after a year on the job pays about $60,000, according to a calculator on the department’s website.
The New Orleans Police Department did not respond to interview requests to discuss recruitment. But city and police department officials have said recruiting new officers and retaining current officers remains one of the department’s top priorities.
City and department officials have expressed frustration with the pace of hiring. But a department spokesman previously said the application process includes variables that could lengthen the process.
Over the past year, Mayor LaToya Cantrell and members of the City Council have worked to allocate millions of dollars to officer retention bonuses, agreed to let officers take home cars and relaxed other requirements in an effort to recruit and retain members of the force . Last year, the city worked with the Police and Justice Foundation to hire consultants focused on bringing in more officers and making reforms aimed at reducing violent crime
However, money is not everything. A study commissioned by the NOPD last year found that officers were more likely to cite overly punitive discipline and restrictive policies than pay as their reason for leaving.
Added Cummings, “You can make millions of dollars, if you’re not happy, you’re not happy.”
‘We are like a big family’
Even among smaller departments, which often struggle to compete with the benefits and perks offered by larger agencies, staffing levels are increasing.
The Gretna Police Department is six employees short of reaching its goal of 137 full-time employees. Deputy Chief Jason DiMarco said last year the shortfall was closer to 20 employees.
“I think it’s a little easier being a smaller shop because the right people get one-on-one time with new hires,” DiMarco said.
To make Gretna more attractive, the department has been more “open-minded” with its scheduling, allowing officers who have other commitments, like school, to work flexible hours, DiMarco said.
The Covington Police Department is fully staffed with 38 full-time officers and six reserve officers, said Sgt. Edwin Masters, a spokesman for the department.
“We’re like a big family here,” Masters said. “Our employees are listened to and heard.”
The Westwego Police Department is one officer short of reaching its goal of 36 officers. Chief Dwayne Munch, Sr. said a handful of officers have left the profession in recent years for other jobs, such as truck driving.
“When I first became police chief, we had a filing cabinet full of applications,” said Munch, who took office in 2001. “Now there’s one or two on file.”
Correction: This story was amended on March 19, 2023 to reflect the correct title of Deputy Chief Jason DiMarco
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