New Orleans is still reeling from another spate of violence last weekend, when five people were killed by gunfire and 11 wounded, including two toddlers. The city has launched high-profile campaigns to address gun violence, but a big part of the problem is an acute shortage of police.
Karen Rogers lives in the lower 9th Ward, where a recent drive-by shooting left two teenagers dead and several more wounded. Police say it was drug-related.
“This is not the first time [I’ve heard gunshots],” says Rogers. “This is the first time to actually see people murdered and shot.”
She blames, in part, a lack of police. “They’re not even around here,” she says.
All over New Orleans, bystanders to crime say response times are slow. Calls to 911 often ring endlessly with no answer. Get in a fender bender? You’ll likely wait hours for police.
“Sometimes the police don’t arrive timely; sometimes they don’t arrive at all,” says Rafael Goyeneche, of New Orleans’ Metropolitan Crime Coalition. He says the reason is simple.
“We’re looking at a 36-year low, from a police manpower standpoint, right now,” he says. “There are just too few of them to respond to all the calls for service that they get.”
A few years ago, New Orleans had budget problems, and Mayor Mitch Landrieu said the city would stop hiring new police officers. The NOPD loses about 100 officers a year, through retirements or people quitting. Today, the city’s population is back to where it was before Hurricane Katrina, but it has about 500 fewer police officers.
“You didn’t really feel the pain, dropping from 1,600 to 1,400,” Goyeneche says. “When it started dropping into the 1,300s and below, that’s when you started to see backups in calls for service.”
Landrieu now wants to hire 400 new officers, fast. At a press conference to address the recent murders and shootings, the mayor spoke, not at a crime scene, as he often does, but at a brand-new police station.
“It stands as a testament to our commitment to make the community safe,” Landrieu said.
Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas praised the building, new squad cars in the parking lot and recent officer promotions.
“These are all the commitments that are real, that candidates consider when they think about joining New Orleans Police Department,” Serpas says.
The recruitment push is on: A private company is speeding up background checks; officers no longer have to live in New Orleans to get hired; and officers no longer have to cover arm tattoos with long sleeves.
Recruiting ads now air on TV across Louisiana and Texas. They’re shot in black and white — noir style — showing cops working the iconic streets of New Orleans.
Aspiring recruit Elvin Green, who himself was hurt by gun violence, says he wants to make his city a better place.
“I was shot in front of my high school after a basketball game,” Green says. “I want to help out my city.”
But progress is slow; there’s just one new class of police recruits, with 29 students. They need about a year of training before they can hit the streets. A second class starts next month, and assuming they all graduate, that means 60 new officers in the next year — far short of the goal.