Cast against the background of the tragic murder of former Saints defensive end Will Smith, discussions of tax measures seem much less important. There is a fundamental culture of violence that exists in this city which will not go away until the people who find themselves smack in the middle of it decide they will simply not tolerate it any longer. Until that happens, there will be no meaningful progress in the fight against violent crime in New Orleans. So, I am going to discuss the failure of the April 9, 2016 tax proposal, but I will be doing so while thinking about Will Smith and all of the other victims of needless violence in the city I choose to call home.
On April 9, 2016, the voters in New Orleans were presented with the opportunity to approve a new millage for public safety in New Orleans. 2.5 mills would have gone toward satisfying judgments held by NOFD employees. 5 mills would have gone to NOPD. It didn’t work out. I feel bad that our firefighters will not be able to get their judgments satisfied any time soon, but since the FOP has had a multi-million dollar judgment against the city since 2000, we are in a similar boat (albeit it a little smaller). For the NOPD, the failure of this tax measure does not change much. We still have the same manpower needs and those manpower needs must be met in order to provide the residents and visitors of New Orleans with the law enforcement service they deserve and need.
The NOPD has been budgeted for 150 new hires per year since 2013 when they finally started to listen to our warnings that manpower was approaching critical levels quickly. Of course, by that time it was too late. Former Chief Serpas explained that it is difficult to recruit when your recruiting pipeline has been shut down for years. Now, officers can receive a $4,000 bonus for each recruit that is hired and makes it through the Academy. That’s a nice chunk of change, but to be truly motivated to seek out potential recruits, officers have to feel like it is a great place to work. Unfortunately, we have seen a lot of things such as the “Great Place to Work” initiative and the unintended consequences of the consent decree that have placed stress on morale which was already low. With manpower being at the root of many morale problems, it creates a vicious circle which is difficult to escape.
Tax or no tax, the NOPD still needs to continue recruiting and hiring. Attrition has not disappeared and the NOPD needs to beat the attrition number every year if we ever hope to reach 1,600 officers. To make matters worse, this is a problem that department’s are experiencing all over the country. So, we are truly competing with departments from across the country for professional law enforcement talent. Tax or no tax, we still need to get to 1,600 officers. We were able to pay for 1,600 officers ten years ago and the budget has not decreased since then. If the problem is paying for body cameras and cloud storage space for those cameras, then maybe we were rash in deciding to go down that road. Many people are under the mistaken belief that the body cameras were required by the consent decree. They were not. The dashboard cameras (MVU’s) were required by the consent decree, but not the body cameras. Speaking of consent decrees, we asked for that. By that, I mean that our elected officials acting on our behalf as elected officials asked for that. We knew it would be expensive and we tried like hell to have a seat at the table during negotiations, but the City and the Department of Justice fought us tooth and nail to keep us out. Historically, those circumstances have led to long, drawn-out consent decrees (as opposed to the consent decrees where the FOP was allowed to participate in negotiations that went exceedingly well). To make matters worse, the OPSO consent decree on the jails has been taxing the city budget to the tune of $30M a year. That is money that cannot be allocated to the NOPD. The millage would have eased that burden a little, but it did not pass, so it is what it is. We still have the same manpower and recruiting needs we had on April 8 — 1,600 officers.
I noticed two interesting things about the voting on the millage proposal. The YES votes appear to have come from the areas of the city which have suffered the most from violent crimes and the NO votes tended to come from areas which suffer from more property crimes than violent crimes. This is not universally true, but it looked like a pattern to me. I also noticed that those areas that have instituted a special taxing district for security tended to vote NO. I guess they figured they were already paying one tax for security and they did not want another. One thing is clear, this vote was not a vote against the men and women that put on the uniform every day. This was a vote against taxes and a general distrust of the administration to use the money wisely or for the stated purpose.
There appeared to be a lot of opposition based on that fear that the money would never reach the police department. The fear was that the money would be taken in by the City and then lost in the black hole known as the General Fund. The fear that the money would be used for unrelated projects and never end up in the NOPD’s budget. Another fear was that the money would go to the NOPD’s budget, but then the NOPD’s budget would be reduced, essentially leading to the same result — more money in the General Fund. When the State Legislature passed the measure authorizing the vote, they included protections against that happening. The statute authorizing the tax proposal required the money go directly to NOPD and that the money could not be used to supplant previously budgeted funds. However, it is hard to convince people there won’t be shenanigans when there has been so much shenanigans in the past.
There was also a concern about the NOPD’s ability to meet its lofty recruiting goals. I have to admit that I share that concern. However, whether I am skeptical of their chances of success in the short-term or not, I know that the NOPD has to keep trying. If we have to live with a 40-year recruiting plan, there is little chance we will see a victory in 15 years. With a 5-year recruiting plan, the chances of 15-year success increases. The Mayor’s comments following the defeat of the measure suggest to me that we will be settling in for the long haul. If we are not shooting for the moon, the chances of us getting there any time soon are pretty slim.
So, what happens next? Well, first of all there is business as usual. The job of providing law enforcement services in the City of New Orleans will not be going away any time soon. I refer back to the beginning of this piece where not too long after the polls closed, former Saints DE Will Smith was murdered in a case involving a traffic crash that escalated to an argument that escalated to murder.
The tax proposal can be reintroduced and maybe the administration will give the voters enough information for them to decide it is worth it. The only thing I know for sure is that tax or no tax, we still need 1,600 officers and the recruiting efforts have got to continue full speed ahead. Anything less would be a disservice to our community which is already suffering.
The Fraternal Order of Police is the largest police association in New Orleans, representing approximately 90% of active NOPD officers. The Crescent City Lodge of the FOP also has approximately 1,000 retired members. Nationally, the FOP is the largest police organization representing over 330,000 police officers in over 2,200 lodges. In Louisiana, the FOP represents over 6,000 law enforcement officers.
“We are the voice of those who dedicate their lives to protecting and serving our communities. We are committed to improving the working conditions of law enforcement officers and the safety of those we serve through education, legislation, information, community involvement, and employee representation. No one knows the dangers and difficulties faced by today’s police officers better than another officer, and no one knows police officers better than the FOP.”