NEW ORLEANS – Hoping to beef up a dwindling police force amid a rise in violent crime, New Orleans officials announced a three-year $80 million plan Thursday offering raises for all officers, free health care and $30,000 in incentive payments for new hires.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell, under growing political pressure amid increasing police response times to pandemic-era crime hikes, announced the plan accompanied by Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson and Fausto Pichardo, a former chief of patrol for the New York City Police Department. Pichardo's hiring as a temporary “consulting Chief of Operations" for New Orleans was announced last week.
The plan — elements of which need City Council and Civil Service board approval — also includes a revival of a take-home car policy for officers, which city Chief Administrative Officer Gilbert Montano said will require the purchase of 600 new vehicles.
Aside from the hiring and retention incentives, Ferguson also said patrol officers also will have more backup in the short term, provided by police assigned from time to time to patrol duty from other specialized areas within the department.
Another change: Arlinda Westbrook, longtime head of the police Public Integrity Bureau that deals with complaints against officers, was reassigned to the city CAO's office to coordinate continuing efforts to address police reforms required under a decade-old court-approved “consent decree” agreement with the U.S. Justice Department. She will be replaced by attorney Keith Sanchez. Police union officials have complained about overzealousness and unfairness by the bureau.
As of early this week there have been 203 homicides in New Orleans this year, according to the nonprofit Metropolitan Crime Commission, an increase of 142% over 2019 and a 46% increase over 2021. Carjackings are up 12% over last year, the organization said.
Meanwhile, the number of New Orleans police officers has dwindled to well under 1,000 people, down from more than 1,300 a few years ago. Officials said the $80 million program is aimed at recruiting 200 officers and could be expanded.
Montano said the much of the money for the changes will come from the city's share of federal pandemic recovery dollars.
Cantrell and others acknowledged that the American Recovery Act dollars aren't recurring revenue but stressed the need to address public safety and said they believe the city can cover the costs in future budgets as city revenue recovers from the pandemic.
Businessman John Casbon, a board member of a local foundation that supports police, stressed his support for the spending. “Economic development and public safety are handcuffed together,” he said. “You cannot have one without the other.”
Once known for corruption and scandals involving deadly force, the New Orleans department has been held up by national experts as a model of reform under the 2013 consent decree. But a federal judge overseeing the city's reform efforts said last month that some of those reforms are endangered by the department's dwindling manpower and resources.