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City Council relaxes residency rule, considers other changes

15th April 2014   ·   0 Comments

The New Orleans City Council voted 6-1 Thursday to lift part of the residency rule which requires city employees to live within Orleans Parish in its effort to boost the NOPD ranks. It’s just one of several possible ways the council plans to tackle the department’s steadily decreasing numbers. The vote means first responders — police, firefighters and EMS workers — can apply for city jobs even though they live outside Orleans Parish.

Even before Thursday’s vote, it was clear that the council was seriously considering a number of moves aimed at boosting the NOPD’s ranks and making the city safer for residents.

“We’re looking at relaxing the domicile requirement and other policies that could be relaxed in regards to 60 hours of college credit or military experience,” Councilwoman Latoya Cantrell told FOX 8 News in an interview prior to Thursday’s vote.

“As we all know, police department numbers have dwindled in recent years,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who heads the Criminal Justice Committee, said.

It was Guidry who used the word “crisis” to define the NOPD’s thinning ranks last year.

Lifting the ordinance was an idea that was supported by NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas as well as local police unions as violent crimes like rape, robberies and home invasions spread anxiety and fear among residents across the city.

“None of us in this room, including you—representing the people on the council—want us to hire for the sake of numbers,” Serpas said. “We’ve got to hire the right people and the more we look at, the better our chances are of getting that done—background investigations, medical conditions, everything.”

The Fraternal Order of Police will do everything in its power, once this measure passes, to contact the 3,500 members we have living in the metropolitan New Orleans area and tell them that the city of New Orleans is a great place to live. It’s a great place to practice your profession,” FOP spokesman James Gallagher said.

“One hundred and fifty new officers is not going to solve your problem. The retention of your seasoned employees will solve your problem,” District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, who has two sons on the New Orleans police force, told Chief Serpas at Thursday’s council meeting.

“You know how terrible it sounds to say you’ve got to lift residency because our police can’t afford to live in our city?” Hedge Morrell added. “Think about what you’re saying. That’s sad.”

The city is seeking to end the “blue hemorrhage,” a term referring to the New Orleans Police Department personnel woes that have it losing more officers than it’s able to replace, even with new recruit classes, and the ranks could be at one of the lowest levels in decades.

Even though money in the city budget has been earmarked for the hiring of 150 new recruits, it was reported earlier this spring that the NOPD has struggled to find enough recruits to begin its next class.

In March, NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas attributed those challenges in part to his refusal to choose quantity over quality.

Last week, after a brazen home invasion that victimized several co-eds that live near Tulane University, the City Council weighed its options as residents demand safer streets.

“Right now we’re being told we’re at 1,060 in active duty,” Cantrell told FOX 8.

However, the residency issue is tricky since there is no guarantee that lifting the residency ordinance will produce quantifiable results or a long-term solution to the city’s efforts to get a handle on crime and violence.

“If you want to walk down my street with a stick and a gun, you need to be living in my neighborhood,” District E Councilman James Gray told FOX 8 News in an interview prior to Thursday’s vote..

FOX 8 News reported that during the recent council campaigns, many candidates spoke about seeking new police leadership, but because the NOPD superintendent serves at the pleasure of the mayor, many now say they’re going to wait and see.

“We have a consent decree in place and morale seems to be low, and we’re doing everything we can to support current leadership unless the mayor says there should be a change,” Cantrell said.

Council members are reportedly also considering a pay hike for NOPD officers, among other things, to boost the department’s numbers.

Police Chief Ronal Serpas says the department is currently in an all-out recruitment effort as it tries to put together its first recruit class of the year. More than 1,000 people have applied, but so far the department has assembled only about half the number needed to begin one of two 30-member recruit classes expected this year.

Because many of the NOPD officers involved in high-profile shootings live outside of Orleans Parish, residents have questioned the wisdom of recruiting law enforcement officers outside of New Orleans who may not have a vested interested in protecting the people of New Orleans.

“When you think about it, once these officers find themselves in hot water for shooting and/or killing a civilian, they often try to get the trial moved outside of New Orleans because they don’t think they can get a fair trial here,” the Rev. Raymond Brown, a community activist and president of National Action Now, told The Louisiana Weekly Thursday. “”Why would they want to work in a city where they don’t think the residents see them in a favorable light.

Residents have complained about the NOPD’s profiling of young Black men and a host of other issues that led to a federally mandated NOPD consent decree, which is currently in the process of being implemented. The mayor and police chief have fought for more than a year to toss out the consent decree, arguing that the City of New Orleans can’t afford to pay for it and that the consent decree is no longer needed because the NOPD has already begun to take steps to reform itself.

Residents have also fought to keep the residency rule in place because it is believed that having law enforcement officers living in the city would add to residents’ sense of safety and improve the relationship between cops and civilians by providing more opportunities for the two groups to interact.

Despite the concerns and objections of some residents, civil rights leaders and community activists to lifting the residency rule, the council forged ahead and voted 6-1 Thursday to expand its recruitment of officers to applicants who live outside of Orleans Parish. It remains to be seen whether that and other steps still being considered by the council will add more qualified applicants to the recruitment pool or help to halt the department’s “blue hemorrhaging.”

The lone dissenting vote on the residency issue was cast by District E Councilmember James Gray, who said he is concerned about how relaxing or lifting the city’s residency rule will affect the property tax base.

This article originally published in the April 14, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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