Interim NOPD chief aims to bring in civilian hires, outlines plan for Mardi Gras
Michelle Woodfork also laid out what the department is doing to tackle a historic drop in the size of the NOPD's force
By Matt Sledge
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — After a year of frosty relations between her predecessor and the City Council, interim New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Michelle Woodfork received a warmer welcome Tuesday as she presented plans to reverse the surge in violent crime and hire more civilians to bolster a depleted force.
Woodfork was able to point to positive signs like an uptick in job applications and a modest dip in violent crimes since she took over Dec. 22. She also said she's prioritizing civilian hires, a council hobbyhorse that didn't gain much traction under former NOPD chief Shaun Ferguson.
For at-large Council member Helena Moreno, a persistent skeptic of how Mayor LaToya Cantrell has overseen the NOPD, the mere fact that Woodfork had a list of new civilian positions came as a relief. District E Council member Oliver Thomas said he was heartened by Woodfork's new strategic plan released last week.
Yet the biggest challenge of Woodfork's short tenure will arrive in a few days, as hundreds of thousands of visitors throng the city for Carnival and the NOPD coordinates a host of out-of-town cops. That test will come as an outside firm searches the nation for a new, permanent chief — potentially putting Woodfork on the short list.
The national search by the International Association of Chiefs of Police hovered over Woodfork's remarks, but wasn't on the formal agenda for council members, who will have to confirm the city's next chief.
In her presentation, Woodfork noted that after a grisly start to January, the number of violent crimes seemed to level off for the rest of the month. There were 303 crimes of violence against people in January, the lowest monthly total in a year, according to NOPD.
Criminologists caution against placing too much weight on short term fluctuations in crime reports. As Woodfork spoke, New Orleans police were searching for a suspect who shot and killed a man at a bus stop in Gentilly. Meanwhile, the overall level of major crimes this year, including property crimes, remains high compared to the same period last year, according to a database from the City Council. That number seems to be driven in large part by an explosion of auto thefts, many tied to Kia and Hyundai vehicles.
In her presentation, Woodfork also laid out what the department is doing to tackle a historic drop in the size of the NOPD's officer corps. Woodfork pointed to a raft of promotions she made at the end of 2022, the over 700 vehicles ordered this year and the pending installation of 200 new computers.
The department has also assigned high-ranking deputy chiefs to reach out to cops who've recently resigned to bend their ears about returning.
Their job, said Woodfork, is to "tell them how things are going to be better, different." So far a "couple" of prospective re-hires have been referred to human resources, she said.
Blue shirts and white collars
Even under the Cantrell administration's rosiest predictions, it will be two years before the NOPD boasts as many officers as it did in 2021. Last year, the department hired 28 officers and lost 154, leaving it with a record-low strength of 922 cops.
Woodfork said departments everywhere are struggling to hire new police in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, and more recently Tyre Nichols. That prompted Thomas to ask whether "we can be a safer city with the manpower and the womanpower that we have."
"I absolutely believe that we can and we will," said Woodfork.
To make up for the loss of sworn officers, the City Council has long pushed the Cantrell administration to hire more civilians who can assume duties like taking low-level theft reports. Yet the process of creating job descriptions and hiring civilians seemed to get bogged down in a mass of red tape over the past year. Council members claimed that Ferguson didn't make it a priority.
On Tuesday, Woodfork brought a list of 102 newly approved positions that she would like to fill. The NOPD didn't immediately comment on how many of those positions have been filled thus far.
The list drew praise from Moreno, who has repeatedly pushed the administration to speed the pace of civilian hiring.
"Here it is," said Moreno, holding up a list of jobs from Woodfork's presentation. "I have been waiting for this slide and asking for it for more than a year."
On another front, however, the city appears to have taken a step back on handing some tasks off to civilians. According to Woodfork, the city allowed its contract with a firm called On Scene Services to handle traffic investigations to lapse. She said the city is in the process of negotiating a new contract.
City Council President JP Morrell said there were 25,000 calls to 911 last year that could have been handled by the firm and urged the city to speed up the process.
"If we can get that done before the end of the month, that would be great," Morrell said. "As a city dealing with a significant surplus on the books, this is a really important priority."
On Friday, the first big Uptown parades are scheduled to start rolling down Saint Charles Avenue. With many fewer police than it had in the past, the NOPD said it's struggling to handle its crowd-control, traffic direction and security tasks on its own.
To backstop the NOPD, Cantrell and Orleans Parish Sheriff Susan Hutson reached an agreement to bring in dozens of police officers from other agencies around the state.
Those police will come with their own rules and regulations and aren't required under the agreement to follow the department's 2012 reform agreement with the federal government, known as a consent decree.
Woodfork said officers will have to show proof that they have met minimum state training standards.
'We expect really more crowd control than anything else," said Woodfork. 'We're praying nothing major will happen on the parade routes. We just want people to be safe and have a good time."
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