NEW ORLEANS — With crime spiking in the tourist-friendly French Quarter and the New Orleans Police Department struggling with a shortage of officers on the streets, Mayor Mitch Landrieu on Monday welcomed a new class of police recruits and praised them for taking the challenge to don a badge in one of the nation's most crime-plagued cities.
Landrieu spoke to the 30 recruits Monday at the start of their first day of tough physical training at an NOPD training facility in eastern New Orleans.
"It is a tough time, there is no doubt about it," Landrieu told the recruits as he talked about the challenges police departments face in the wake of nationwide riots condemning police brutality. But he thanked them "for stepping up to the plate."
The force's ranks have declined in recent years due to attrition and a reduction in hiring, leaving the department understaffed. There are about 1,200 officers today, well short of the 1,600 the department says it needs to operate properly.
But filling the ranks is no easy task.
The city is training about 150 new officers a year, but with roughly 115 officers retiring or leaving each year as well it will be difficult to reach 1,600.
Also, the NOPD is required by the U.S. Department of Justice to carry out better training of new officers, as stipulated by a court-monitored consent decree to modernize and improve the scandal-ridden police force.
The department's shortage of officers comes at a time of rising fear over crime.
Although the number of homicides was down last year to 150, the city has seen a spike in other violent crimes. Residents of the French Quarter have suffered from a series of beatings, robberies and other crimes, and have begun posting signs telling people to walk in groups.
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison points to the shortage of officers as a cause for the uptick in such "crimes of opportunity." Criminals are taking advantage of the lack of officers, he said recently.
Authorities have erected billboards around the city to let people know the NOPD is hiring. Monday's group is the third class of recruits in the past year.
The recruits, dressed in blue fatigue clothing, were put to the test Monday during a grueling session of running, pushups and other strenuous activity overseen by shouting drill officers at the orientation.
"If this is not for you, the front gate is 50 yards away!" an officer shouted at the sweaty recruits, tensely standing at attention in front of on-looking NOPD brass.
During the first day of training, several recruits were pushed to the point of complete exhaustion, with a few being allowed to sit down and rest. One recruit heaved from fatigue after a group run.
The recruits have passed written and oral examinations and background checks. During their training, they receive the starting salary of a new officer: $37,000 a year. Besides physical conditioning, they will undergo training in the law, investigations, community policing, driving and the use of firearms. After six months of training at the police academy, the recruits will spend four months doing field training during which they will go on patrol.
The recruits included 12 with military backgrounds and 17 who were not from New Orleans. The oldest recruit was 49 years old and the youngest 23.
Landrieu said the recruits are the state's best paid. "They deserve it because they have one of the toughest jobs," Landrieu said. "Our recruits are being held to higher standards."