According to numbers from City Council statistician Jeff Asher, New Orleans ended 2022 with 265 murders, for a rate of 70 per 100,000 residents, ahead of St. Louis at 67, and Baltimore at 58. That gives New Orleans the highest murder rate in the United States, reclaiming the “murder capital” title that it last held in 2011. Against this backdrop, the city begins its search for a new police chief.
In addition to the murder rate, the new chief will face a list of other challenges. The city has a budget for 1,500 police officers, but the NOPD currently has fewer than 1,000 to patrol a city of more than 380,000 people. Even though the NOPD pays higher salaries than any other local police force in Louisiana, (starting at close to $60,000 annually for new officers after one year of service out of the academy), recruiting new officers has been difficult.
Veteran officers are retiring or resigning from the department at a rate faster than they can be replaced by new officers coming out of the academy. The transfer process to allow certified officers from other departments to enter the NOPD and retain their rank is slow and inefficient. It will take a long time to increase the size of the department. The current emphasis is on retention.
A recent survey conducted by the Fraternal Order of Police magnified the challenges of retention. The poll of rank-and-file officers indicated that salary and benefits were not the primary reasons for officers leaving. The top two reasons given by officers for dissatisfaction were lack of a fair promotion process, and lack of a fair process to allocate assignments. Officers expressed a belief that the department is run by nepotism and cronyism. Many respondents argued that the only way to get a promotion or get a prime assignment is to be related to someone in power, or to be friends with someone in power. It appears the retention problem is affected more by lack of confidence in management than lack of money.
The next police chief selection process will be unique in city history. On Jan. 1, a change in the city charter went into effect giving the City Council advice and consent power. The nominee will be required to appear before the council for a confirmation hearing and will need at least four votes out of seven to be confirmed. Mayor LaToya Cantrell would be well advised to consult with the council on any potential finalists, especially given the well-documented strained relationship between the mayor and the council in recent months. How this confirmation process is handled will set the tone for future appointments of department heads. Not only for Cantrell, but for future mayors as well.
The city council has already issued a letter, signed by all councilmembers, indicating that they expect a national search. In most large cities, a national search for police chief to find the best possible candidate is the norm. The mayor has resisted using the word “national,” arguing that the best candidates are within the department. This sets up a political showdown between the mayor and the council.
Adding to the political complexity are the polling results that show Cantrell dropping in favorability ratings and the fact that a well-financed team of residents is running a recall petition campaign against her. Power has been flowing away from the mayor and toward the City Council for several months. Any more missteps by the mayor could cripple her politically in the remaining time she has in office.
NOPD Capt. Michelle Woodfork, the interim superintendent of police, a veteran of more three decades in the department and by all accounts a respected officer, has stated that she will apply for the permanent position. In at least one television interview, she has said that she understands that cronyism and nepotism are problems in the department and that she would reform the promotion and assignment processes. However, given the fact she was previously a captain, district commander, and member of senior administration, she can expect questions from councilmembers during a confirmation hearing about why she didn’t use her authority in her previous leadership positions to implement changes within the district she commanded.
Any internal candidates should be prepared to publicly answer questions from the council as to exactly what they did in order to address the cronyism complaints of the rank-and-file officers.
Although the city ended last year as the murder capital, New Orleans is still a popular city due to its culture, and the police superintendent job is still a coveted post for an experienced administrator. There will be no shortage of candidates applying, provided that the process is transparent and professional.
All citizens interested in the safety of the city should take advantage of the new confirmation process and let their council representatives know what they want to see in a chief. Public safety requires public input. The new police chief confirmation process gives voters a path to provide that input.
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