NOPD Struggling to Reinvent Itself

The Associated Press
Friday, November 30, 2007; 12:39 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- Det. Sheila Celious has less than an hour to give members of Cadet Class 159 an overview of domestic violence policing, so she doesn't mince words.

"There was a Russian proverb that says, `A woman isn't a jug. She won't crack if you hit her 10 times,'" she tells the New Orleans Police recruits arrayed before her in their white buttoned-downs and blue cargo pants. Of the 65 who started at the Municipal Training Academy back in July, 59 have made it this far.

Nervous chuckles fill the darkened lecture hall but they are quickly stifled as a Polaroid of a woman's face, bruised and battered, flashes on the screen behind Celious.

For the next 45 minutes, the NOPD veteran runs the recruits through various street scenarios, quizzing them on municipal codes and state statutes.

As the lights come up and the cadets gather up their manuals, Celious has one last message for them.

Cadet Class 159 is the largest in the NOPD's history, but these recruits aren't just warm bodies rebuilding ranks gutted by hurricane Katrina. They bear another, perhaps heavier burden: That of helping rehabilitate a department whose image was tarnished even before Katrina's muck settled over the "Big Sleazy."

"It takes a long time to gain the public's and citizens' trust," she tells them. "Do the right thing."

Just like the city it serves, the NOPD is still struggling to come back from the Aug. 29, 2005, storm.

Before the hurricane, the force had more than 1,700 officers. Desertions, defections, retirements and even suicides slashed that number by more than 30 percent.

Counting recently graduated cadets, the rolls are just now topping 1,400.

Since last year, 300 Louisiana National Guard members and 60 state troopers have helped patrol some of the city's more deserted neighborhoods and beef up the uniformed presence in the French Quarter.

That cooperative agreement, already extended by two months, was scheduled to expire in mid-January. Gov.-Elect Bobby Jindal has said he intends to continue the aid, though he has not specified for how long.

Even with a much smaller population to police and protect, some wonder if the NOPD will be ready.

Deputy Superintendent Anthony W. Cannatella told a U.S. Senate panel this summer that the department had a backlog of more than 1,600 narcotics tests alone.

More than two years after Katrina, the NOPD's headquarters and one of its eight districts are still operating out of trailers _ some of which have no indoor plumbing. Just this month, District 5 _ which covers the Ninth Ward _ moved into temporary quarters in a former furniture building, donated and renovated by a public-private coalition.

The department has yet to move into a newly acquired central evidence and property storage facility. And the crime lab only recently moved to rented space at the University of New Orleans.

"The NOPD is at a crossroads," Cannatella told senators. "We will never abandon our mission to `Serve and Protect' the citizens of New Orleans, but we are faced with the daily reality of an imminent collapse of our criminal justice institutions."

Before Katrina, the NOPD's record was checkered at best. The storm compounded the negative image.

Despite stories of individual heroism and personal sacrifice, the world seemed fixated on widely publicized images of officers looting and tales of mass desertions. Several dozen officers were eventually fired for abandoning their posts.

Six officers and one former officer await trial on murder and attempted murder charges in connection with a shooting on the Danziger Bridge in the chaotic days after Katrina struck. Police say they were fired upon from the bridge, but survivors claim they were unarmed.

Former Superintendent Eddie Compass gave his imprimatur to rumors _ later discredited _ that armed gangs had seized control of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where rapes and killings were said to be rampant. To many, it seemed the NOPD wasn't controlling the panic, but feeding it.

Even with a population cut nearly in half, the city managed last year to regain its title as the nation's murder capital. So far this year, there have been 193 homicides in the city _ including a 19-year NOPD detective who was mortally wounded defending his wife during an early morning invasion of his New Orleans East home last month.

Though murders were down almost 25 percent for the third quarter of 2007 over the same period last year, overall violent crime was up more than 13 percent, according to the NOPD Web site.

There is a perception _ deserved or not _ that the department is overwhelmed.

SilenceIsViolence, an anti-crime campaign launched following the slayings of two artists in the Bywater-Marigny district, monitors police response in the city. Co-founder Ken Foster, a writer living in the Lower Ninth, says he has called to report drug activity, only to be told by dispatchers, "There's not much we can do."

"If there's a body, they show up. If somebody's shot and still alive, they'll show up. If somebody's house is broken into, they don't necessarily show up," he says.

Foster worries things will get worse when the Guard members and troopers pull out.

Superintendent Warren Riley recently announced mandatory 12-hour shifts for uniformed officers through the end of the year. Foster says he's noticed increased patrols, but wonders what this overtime is "going to do toward helping them maintain their sanity."

The department has also recently begun implementing recommendations from a 188-page report on community policing produced by Lee P. Brown, the former federal drug czar, Houston mayor and New York City police commissioner.

August Milton Jr., an adjunct professor at Tulane University and former NOPD officer who teaches a course on "Policing the Modern City," says most of the violent crime appears to be criminal-on-criminal, "although it pops up in a couple of places it normally doesn't." He says the department seems to be getting good-quality recruits, and that the leadership is doing a good job with the resources available.

"I think the reputation is on the rise," says Milton, who patrolled some of the city's toughest projects during his five years on the force. "People see the struggles and challenges they have. ... They're working out of trailers and so forth. That's no fun. AND they've got to do the job. That's a tough combination, but they keep working at it."

Along with retirements, cherry-picking by departments in cities with higher pay and a better quality of life has led to a situation where the NOPD is losing officers faster than the academy can replace them. Cannatella told senators the department's post-Katrina attrition rate showed "no sign of declining."

The department has tried to stem the bleeding by sweetening the pot a bit.

Officers have received two raises this year alone. Starting pay for new recruits is now $36,570, rising to $42,590 after one year's service _ putting the city in on par with other Southern departments.

Retirement benefits have also been beefed up. After 25 years, officers get 83 percent of their duty pay; after 30 years, it's 100 percent.

The youngest member of Cadet Class 159 just reached legal drinking age. The oldest is a former Home Depot salesman who's 46.

Just after dawn on a recent morning, Recruit Commander Sgt. Clarence J. Gillard Jr. strolls up and down rows of cadets in the parking lot behind the academy building. It is unseasonably cold, but Gillard reminds them criminals aren't taking a holiday because of the weather.

"Where's your hands?" he asks one recruit, the brim of his Smokey Bear hat nearly touching the cadet's face. "They should be out. You can't draw your weapon if your hands are covered up with a jacket."

A half dozen cadets have either washed out or quit. But Gillard is confident about those who remain.

"We want to start making a new mark...," he says. "We as a staff believe that this class has been given the best training that they could possibly receive from a police academy based on our circumstances, and they will be able to help as soon as they hit the street."

At 42, Ramon Negrete might seem an unlikely candidate for rookie cop. A buzz cut does not disguise his graying hair.

Negrete graduated from a police training course in Los Angeles in 2005 and has been on a waiting list ever since. When the NOPD accepted his application to the academy, he quit his air conditioning installer's job, sold his house, and moved his wife and two young children to New Orleans.

Some of his LA comrades jokingly wonder how he passed the psych evaluation.

"I don't know why people are so afraid to come down here," he says after a grueling session of sit-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks and wind sprints. "If you're looking to not do much as a police officer, then maybe you're good staying where you are. But if you want to be a police officer, this is the place to be."

Negrete has signed a three-year contract. But New Orleans and the department have made a lasting impression on him, and he already can't imagine leaving.

"They really embraced me with a lot of love and they showed me that I had worth," Negrete says. "I'm here to help. I'm here to help try to make things better than whatever they were."

Fellow cadet Ashely Terry has a more personal stake in the city's future.

At 5-foot-1, the 24-year-old Gentilly native jokes that she needs a booster seat to see out the back window of her cruiser. But she notes that she's been certified with the expandable baton, held onto her weapon despite a faceful of pepper spray and scored 118 out of a possible 120 with her Glock 9 mm.

Terry wants people to feel they can safely return to the city. More importantly, she wants to make New Orleans safe for her 6-year-old daughter, Emynee _ a name inspired by the Arabic word for "faith."

"That's my motivation to be a police officer," she says. "So the world can be safe for her; these neighborhoods could be safe for her. So she can walk down the street and play outside and wouldn't be scared.

"It's just all about my baby."

© 2007 The Associated Press