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Police didn't get defunded but many large departments are shrinking

Ethan Cheramie and Daryl Odom, of On Scene Services, a private contractor hired by New Orleans to respond to car wrecks because of a shortage of police officers.
Martin Kaste
Ethan Cheramie and Daryl Odom, of On Scene Services, a private contractor hired by New Orleans to respond to car wrecks because of a shortage of police officers.

During the George Floyd protests of 2020, many people called for the defunding of traditional police. That didn't happen, for the most part. But almost three years on, some police departments are shrinking anyway.

A new criminology study of 14 large police departments found most have had an "excess" loss of sworn, full-time officers since 2020, a trend verified in core-city agencies such as the New Orleans Police Department.

In 2010, NOPD had about 1,500 officers; a decade later, it was at about 1,200. Since 2020, the department is down by another 20% to 944. Despite doubled recruiting efforts, the department continues to shrink.

"We're looking at a situation where the department this year has already lost almost 20 officers," says Jeff Asher, a public safety consultant who tracks the city's police staffing for the New Orleans City Council. "It really impacts everything. You're seeing response times that have gone from an average of about 50 minutes for any type of call in 2019 to over two and a half hours last year. And, so far, a little bit worse this year."

Even lifelong residents of New Orleans say they see the difference.

"I am off the street every day by 4 p.m.," says Delores Montgomery, a ride-share driver. She says she was especially shaken by the recent killing of another ride-share driver, as well as her own experience last year, seeing a couple running after their stolen car at a gas station in broad daylight.

"It's just one thing after another and you just sit there with your mouth open," she says. "Criminals know there's not enough officers on the street! They know this!"

New Orleans, which used to be ranked among the deadliest cities in the 1990s and late 2000s, likely reclaimed the dubious distinction of the worst per capita murder rate among cities with more than 250,000 residents last year.

Rank-and-file officers say they're less able to be a presence in crime hotspots, because of the personnel shortage.

"We're dealing with a 1,600-officer police department being operated by 900 officers," says Capt. Mike Glasser, a veteran with the New Orleans Police Department who's also the president of the Police Association of New Orleans (PANO).

Glasser blames the dwindling staff on officer mistrust of leadership, as well as stair-step financial incentives that can cause officers to retire early. There's also been intense pressure from other departments, who recruit NOPD away to quieter jobs in the suburbs. Regardless of the causes, Glasser says it's time to accept certain realities.

New Orleans Police Department is trying to get less risky duties off its plate

"We really have never retooled the department," Glasser says. "There are some things that we should probably abbreviate — or eliminate, temporarily — in order to basically triage the crime problem."

One thing NOPD is trying to get off its plate: Less-risky police duties, such as going to the scene of noninjury car wrecks.

"Citizens still call 911, their call is still dispatched. However, it is dispatched to our agents," says Ethan Cheramie, founder of a company called On Scene Services (OSS). It employs unarmed, former police officers who go to the scenes of wrecks to take information and provide reports.

"Our agents respond in a timely, efficient manner, to let everybody get on with their day," Cheramie says. OSS has had two cars responding to crashes in New Orleans for the past five years, and with the worsening officer shortage, the city has just signed an expanded contract for seven OSS cars — enough, Cheramie figures, to free up the equivalent of 15 fulltime officers for other duties.

"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," Cheramie says.

And yet, the city's follow-through has been slow. Last year, NOPD pledged to hire civilians for 50 new positions doing traditional police jobs such as fingerprinting and property crime investigations. There were more than enough qualified applicants, but so far the department has announced only three hires.

In an email to NPR, NOPD cited the "multiple steps" involved in hiring civilians, but reaffirmed "how crucial it is to hire both commissioned and professional staff."

The department would not make anyone available for interviews, citing the staffing shortage.

Another factor that may be complicating the process is political turmoil. The department has experienced command reshuffles in recent months, and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell faces a possible recall election.

Some of the resistance to civilianization may also be coming from the police themselves. PANO president Mike Glasser says the best solution to the officer shortage is consolidation —putting investigations under one roof— rather than just hiring more civilians.

The problem with civilian hires, he says, is that they can do only the jobs they're hired to do. If the department suddenly needs extra personnel for, say, crowd control during Mardi Gras, they can't help.

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

Nationally, more police are expressing interest in civilianizing some of their work. The union for Los Angeles police officers, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, recently proposed that civilians respond to more nonviolent 911 calls, such as welfare checks and loud parties.

But, like New Orleans, cities that have pledged to move in that direction are having trouble following through — Baltimore City police, for instance. Last year the department said it would hire civilian investigators; a year later, their training has yet to start.

The story was edited by Maquita Peters. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.