NEW ORLEANS — In a move to beef up the police ranks, the chief of the troubled New Orleans Police Department has eliminated a requirement that recruits have 60 hours of college education or two years of military experience.
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison made his case Monday before the Civil Service Commission and the board voted 4-0 to scrap the requirements. The board oversees policy for public employees.
Ending the requirement is seen by critics as a dangerous step backward in efforts to overhaul the NOPD. The college or military background experience was instituted in 2010 and was meant to make the force more qualified and less likely to abuse its police powers.
"It is taking a leap backward in the wrong direction," said Randolph Scott with the grassroots group Community United for Change after the vote. He told the commission college-educated recruits would help ensure that new officers do not abuse their powers.
"You have the old line police officers who don't understand the importance of revising policies."
But Harrison told the commission that ending the college or military requirement would not soften hiring standards. He said rigorous testing and background checks have been put into place before a recruit is hired.
"We're still looking for the best and the brightest," said Harrison, whose move was backed by the city's police unions. He also had the blessing of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and members of the City Council.
The department is working with the U.S. Department of Justice and the federal courts to clean up the force. In 2012, a Justice Department probe of the NOPD resulted in the city agreeing to a series of changes in policies governing hiring, training, discipline, procedures for use of violence and many other elements of police work. A federal monitor is overseeing the housecleaning. The consent decree does not require recruits to have a college education.
The college or military requirement was put into place by Harrison's predecessor, Ronal Serpas
Harrison said the rule change was necessary for the department to add hundreds of new officers and eliminate what it sees as a serious staffing shortage. The department says it wants to hire more than 400 officers. The chief said about 1,000 applicants were turned down last year because they did not have the college or military requirements.
The city is also dealing with a rise in violent crime and police say getting more officers on patrol will help stem such crimes. Last year rapes, armed robberies and burglaries increased, even though the homicide rate declined with the fewest number since 1971, according to police data.
Harrison cited himself as an example of someone who did not have a college background when he joined the force but obtained college credits after he joined the force. He said the NOPD is doing more to help officers take college classes. To get promoted to the ranks of sergeant and lieutenant officers need college credits.