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New Orleans PD continues overhaul with a $80 million plan, offering new recruits $30,000 to join

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Matt Sledge

The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

Mayor LaToya Cantrell on Thursday announced an $80 million salary and benefit plan to lure fresh New Orleans Police Department recruits and keep current cops, a redeployment to tackle alarming 911 response times and the arrival of a former leader of the NYPD to help Superintendent Shaun Ferguson turn around the city’s struggling police force.

The steps, detailed by Cantrell at a City Hall news conference as she was flanked by top police brass and other New Orleans criminal-justice leaders, is the mayor’s boldest plan yet to try and tackle the city’s dire violent crime surge after calls from residents, businesses and civic groups for action.

The pay package — which includes $30,000 bonuses for recruits who make a starting salary of $42,411 — represents a massive injection of funding over the next three years into a force with a $215 million annual budget that already dwarfs other city agencies. And while it would be largely covered by federal pandemic relief funds, the package could run smack into competing priorities at the City Council, which must approve the plan. Some council members who have pushed for actions such as adding civilians to the force are skeptical that throwing money at cops will be enough to keep them on the job.

The dwindling cache of hundreds of millions of dollars of federal relief money could be spent on a wide range of pressing needs, but Cantrell argued that policing is the most important.

“Public safety remains our top priority,” said Cantrell. “This is the best use of one-time money, quite frankly.”

‘Above and beyond’

The move comes as City officials are desperately trying to stem the bleeding on a force that has dipped below 1,000 cops for the first time in decades. As numbers have dwindled, 911 response times have soared to a 31-minute average for high-priority emergency calls. And residents are growing increasingly frustrated with Cantrell and her team over the surge in carjackings, murders and other violent crimes over the past two years.

There were 186 murders in New Orleans through Wednesday compared to 81 at the same point in 2019, a grim leap that is fueling the fledgling effort to recall Cantrell.

The City Council has already passed one round of bonus payments and pay raises for cops. The mayor said Thursday she hoped to layer one more on top.

“What I’m talking about is above and beyond,” she said.

If Cantrell can convince the City Council, recruits and transfers from other departments will be tempted with a $30,000 “incentive” benefit, to be split across payments after the first and third year of service.

Current cops would not be left out. Under Cantrell’s plan, they are slated to receive a new, $10,000 retention bonus in 2025 and 2.5% pay raises in 2024 and 2025 over and above those previously approved.

That’s not all. Police officers would see their health insurance — along with that of their spouses and dependents — fully covered through 2025.

Other sweeteners include rental and student loan assistance. The city also wants to bring back a take-home vehicle program for all NOPD officers. But to make that plan happen, the city must buy 600 more police vehicles at a cost of $25 million, according to Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montaño.

Under the city’s plan, all of the proposed $80 million package save $5 million would be covered by American Rescue Plan Act funds, according to Montaño. The federal stimulus act has sent $388 million to the city treasury, although most of that has already been committed to making up for lost tax revenue and other priorities.

“We’re once again looking at this as an investment. Without a safe habitable city, what good is a strong fund balance?” said Montaño.

New assignments

At the news conference, Cantrell was joined by Montaño, Ferguson and other NOPD leaders, City Council members Oliver Thomas and Eugene Green and two officials from the non-profit Police and Justice Foundation, which is paying for a trio of consultants hired to advise NOPD.

Thomas used the occasion to harken back to the changes the NOPD made in the 1990s under Superintendent Richard Pennington, which included greater use of technology and the redeployment of detectives from police headquarters into the districts.

Ferguson walked through a planned redeployment aimed at getting police to emergencies faster.

District administrative officers, standby K-9 handlers and traffic officers will have to ply the streets. Even homicide detectives and other investigators juggling huge caseloads will have to spend some time on patrol.

City officials said those moves will increase the number of street cops assigned to each district at any one time, an attempt to answer complaints from rank-and-file police who say the small current deployments are a safety issue for themselves and a disservice to residents.

But Cantrell wouldn’t provide additional details about how many cops are currently on patrol, or what the increase would look like, saying it would be “tipping off our criminals.”

Ferguson acknowledged that the shift to street policing could be an “uncomfortable” move for some officers long assigned to other duties.

Council questions

Montaño said City Council members seemed receptive to the pay plan in briefings. However, Cantrell and other officials devoted scarce time Thursday to a favorite solution proposed by City Council President Helena Moreno and Vice President JP Morrell: hiring more civilians to perform investigative functions.

Council members have also zeroed in on exit interviews from departing police officers who say that management and disciplinary issues were bigger concerns than pay, which already exceeds many neighboring departments.

In an interview shortly after the press conference, Morrell said he was waiting for more details and struck a cautious note.

“I think it’s a very ambitious plan to stabilize recruitment and retention,” he said. “I did not see anything substantive on civilianization. And I did not see anything substantive on how they’re actually going to change policing in the city.”

One police labor official welcomed the pay package announced Thursday.

“I think the recruitment and retention issue is one of the most serious issues that we face right now, and I think that the bold response by the city is exactly what’s called for,” said Donovan Livaccari, of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Still, Livaccari said the NOPD should closely monitor whether the redeployment will make matters worse for the homicide and special victims units struggling with high workloads.

New faces

Cantrell’s press conference was also the public debut for a pair of former high-ranking New York City Police Department officers who have been brought on to advise Ferguson.

They are Fausto Pichardo, the NYPD’s chief of patrols until 2020, and former assistant commissioner Thomas Conforti. Some officers have questioned whether Ferguson or Pichardo will call the shots during the latter’s six-month appointment as consulting chief of operations. Pichardo, who said Thursday that he accompanied Cantrell on her recent tours of police district roll calls, said he’s received a “warm welcome” from Ferguson.

“It’s quite simple,” he said. “I am here in a support capacity, in any way shape or form that the superintendent needs.”

The mayor also announced another big personnel change that has been in the works for weeks. The NOPD is replacing 11-year Public Integrity Bureau deputy chief Arlinda Westbrook with attorney Keith Sanchez, a former police officer. Westbrook is being sent to City Hall, where she will support implementation of the NOPD consent decree, Cantrell said.

Westbrook lasted in her role as the NOPD’s lead enforcer across two mayors and three police chiefs. But she couldn’t survive months of criticism from police groups over what they view as unfair investigations by an insular, cliquish bureau.

Recent allegations of misconduct by some PIB investigators have drawn added scrutiny to the workings of the bureau.

At a court hearing last month, however, the federal monitor that reports to U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan over mandated reforms to the police department said a review found no evidence that officers are being overly disciplined for low-level policy violations.

Morgan called out Westbrook by name for praise at a court hearing last month, saying the longtime civilian chief of PIB had “built and continues to lead an effective … internal affairs unit.”

Staff writer John Simerman contributed to this report.

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