Neighborhood leaders were troubled last year when the New Orleans Police Department reassigned all its quality-of-life officers to bolster the ranks of patrolmen on the streets, and on Thursday night took advantage of a town-hall meeting on crime with top NOPD officials to request their return.
Prior to the redeployment, each district was assigned two quality-of-life officers, whose primary responsibility was responding to infractions of the law that didn’t rise to the level of emergencies, such as constantly-barking dogs, houses that hosted disruptive parties, or abandoned vehicles. In 2013, for example, quality-of-life officer Byron Francois recruited the New Orleans Fire Department to help trim shoes from power lines across the Second District.
They also were frequent attendees at neighborhood meetings, giving residents their direct numbers and generally serving as a face to the police department. In early 2016, however — partly in response to reports showing dismal response times to emergency calls — the department reassigned those quality of life officers back onto the road to help patrols respond to calls to service, despite the objections of neighborhood leaders.
On Thursday, at a forum on crime hosted by City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, residents said the loss of those officers has been detrimental. Carrollton activist H.V. Nagendra said the quality-of-life officers were literally his direct link to the department — because they gave out their personal cell phones — and now he doesn’t know who to call for a similar response.
NOPD Deputy Superintendent Paul Noel said part of the redeployment included training all officer to handle those kinds of issues, as well as creating new dispatch codes for them so they could be tracked more easily. Individual officers still attend community meetings as well, he said.
“We want every single officer to be engaged,” Noel said. “For the health of the NOPD, it’s much better to have every officer engaged in the quality of life process than just two.”
Ultimately, Noel said, the problem with response times had to be addressed immediately, and the 16 quality of life officers represented too much manpower to overlook. As the department continues recruiting, Noel said, they could possibly be restored.
“At some point I would like to bring those back, but that’s going to be a while,” Noel said. “Our response times were absolutely unacceptable, and we’ve come a long way on reducing those response times.”
Lawrence Williams, a resident of the Northwest Carrollton neighborhood, said he doesn’t know anyone who knows the police officers anymore.
“In the neighborhood, the police department is like an occupying force, because nobody knows who they are,” Williams said. “Get to know the people who you serve.”
NOPD Second District Commander Shaun Ferguson noted that Williams’ neighborhood had not had a meeting lately he could send an officer to, but urged Williams to come to the district’s monthly community meetings (called NONPACC, scheduled next for Tuesday, March 21) at Touro Infirmary. At those meetings, Ferguson said, residents can hear about crime trends in their specific neighborhoods, ask about specific incidents, and build a relationship with officers.
“It really is an incredibly under-used resource,” Guidry agreed.
(The department is also hosting its periodic Coffee with the Cops event from 9 to 11 a.m. this Saturday, March 18, at seven McDonald’s including 3443 South Carrollton Avenue, 2856 South Claiborne Avenue, 2757 Canal Street in Mid-City, 3025 Elysian Fields Avenue and others.)
Individual interaction was easier when the department had 1,600 officers, and is more difficult now that the number has been reduced by 400 officers, acknowledged NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison. The short-term remedy is freeing up more officers for the street — modernizing the department to use technology to reduce paperwork, and ensuring that any job that can be done by a civilian isn’t filled with a sworn officer.
The department is adding its own anti-crime cameras to hotspots around the city, and just secured 300 take-home patrol cars to increase their visible presence in the neighborhood even when the officers are off duty. What everybody would love would be the ideal of officers on walking beats in the neighborhoods, Harrison said, and that’s the kind of visibility the department would like to return to as well.
“We’re really trying to get back to that,” Harrison says. “Everything we do is about creating smart deployments, so the officers can get to know the people they serve.”
As the meeting drew to a close, Guidry asked the district commanders to do more to ensure their officers get to know the residents in their neighborhoods.
“This is a recurring theme tonight,” Guidry said. “We need to know who to call up.”
See below for live coverage.