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New Orleans Police Department taps civilians amid an officer shortage

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the years since the George Floyd protests, many American police departments have found themselves short-staffed. Some big city departments say officers are leaving faster than they can be replaced. One extreme example is New Orleans. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the NOPD has shrunk so much, it's being forced to spin off some of its work to civilians.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Fear of crime is unfortunately nothing new in New Orleans, but lately, even lifelong residents sound rattled. Take Delores Montgomery. She's a rideshare driver.

DELORES MONTGOMERY: I am off the street every day by 4 p.m.

KASTE: Why is that?

MONTGOMERY: Because crime - I am afraid.

KASTE: Last year, New Orleans' murder rate was among the nation's worst. Even as the department was so short on officers, it put them on 12-hour shifts.

MONTGOMERY: Criminals - they know there's not enough police officers on the street. They know this.

KASTE: Police agree. Captain Mike Glasser is president of the Police Association of New Orleans.

MIKE GLASSER: We're dealing with a 1,600-officer police department being operated by 900 officers.

KASTE: Almost three years after protesters around the country demanded the defunding of police, which mostly didn't happen, some departments are shrinking anyway. In New Orleans, it's because cops are retiring early, transferring to other departments, and there aren't enough qualified recruits signing up. Glasser says it's time for the department to adapt to this new reality.

GLASSER: We really have never retooled the department. There are some things that we should probably abbreviate or eliminate temporarily in order to basically triage the crime problem.

KASTE: One job that the NOPD is trying to get off its plate is going to the scene of low-risk noninjury car wrecks.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR ENGINE SPUTTERING)

KASTE: That work has been contracted out to a company called On Scene Services, with a small fleet of cars that look official. But they don't say police.

So I'm looking at this sign here - agent on duty. Do people sometimes ask you, what does that mean?

DARYL ODOM: Nah. We usually - once we pull up, the likelihood is once we get out and identify ourselves that we're there to handle the accident, they get comfortable while we're there.

KASTE: Daryl Odom is a retired New Orleans police sergeant, now one of this company's unarmed civilian agents. He looks at the city's dispatch screen, at all the people who've been in accidents and are waiting by the roadside for a cop to give them a report for their insurance company.

ODOM: Right now, they're holding 18 accidents, the oldest starting at 7:22 a.m. this morning going all the way up until 2:17 this afternoon. And it's 2:21 right now. The NOPD has not responded to any of them yet.

KASTE: For the last few years, OSS has had two agents out on the road taking care of many of these calls, but as the officer shortage has gotten worse, the city has agreed to expand the contract to seven agents. That's seven cars out at a time, taking care of an estimated 15,000 calls a year. Company founder Ethan Cheramie says that can free up the equivalent of about 15 full-time officers, and it's an approach he says has broad backing from the city's business community.

ETHAN CHERAMIE: There's been a concerted effort to assist not only the city administration but the New Orleans Police Department in further civilianization. So you're going to continue to see alternative police response be divested from guys with guns over to civilians to respond to these nonviolent calls for service.

KASTE: And yet follow-through has been slow. Last year NOPD pledged to open 50 new jobs to civilians for duties such as fingerprinting and property crime investigations. There were more than enough qualified applicants, but six months later, the department has filled only a handful of the positions.

JP MORRELL: The council has kind of been in this very weird, semi-aggressive battle with NOPD.

KASTE: JP Morrell is one of the city council members who've been pushing the department to move faster.

MORRELL: Part of accepting the reality that people do not want to go into law enforcement - traditional law enforcement - and that we're losing the battle to recruit new officers is to really lean into civilianization and finding the different things that police officers do that could be alternatively done by a civilian.

KASTE: NOPD wouldn't go on the record with NPR about civilianization. It said it was too short-staffed to do interviews. It's also true that the New Orleans city government has been in turmoil lately as Mayor LaToya Cantrell faces a possible recall election. Still, there are some signs that some of this resistance is coming from the police themselves.

GLASSER: Everything in moderation.

KASTE: Back at the Police Association, Mike Glasser says the thing to remember about civilians is that they can do only the jobs they're hired for. Unlike commissioned officers, they can't be just pulled in to other duties, such as crowd control during Mardi Gras.

GLASSER: Should we civilianize some things? Probably so, we should. Other things - I got to caution that that's not a long-term, enduring philosophy.

KASTE: Enthusiasm for police civilianization has been uneven in other cities, too. The Union for Los Angeles Police officers recently proposed that civilians should respond to more nonviolent calls, such as welfare checks and loud parties. But elsewhere, the promises have bogged down. Baltimore Police, for instance, said last year that it would hire civilian investigators. Their training has yet to start. Still, in departments where recruiting keeps lagging behind attrition, some kind of restructuring seems inevitable. The only question is which jobs the police will have to give up.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.