“You will never see so many happy police officers in one place, like you will after a [police] graduation ceremony.”
– NOPD Deputy Chief Bruce Adams, April 2008
On the morning of April 2, 2015, 27 newly sworn police officers climb the stairs leading to the exits, ending standing-room only graduation ceremonies for New Orleans Police Recruit Class No. 171 at Loyola University’s Nunemaker Auditorium. The 330-seat arena empties slowly. Proud families head for the elevators. Some carry small children. A newborn baby sleeps in her mother’s arms, wrapped in a white-and-yellow blanket; she’s Camille McNeil, the daughter of new New Orleans policeman Marcus McNeil and his wife Brittiny.
Watching the policeman’s daughter and her mother, the future of crime-numb New Orleans suddenly seems bright and definitely worth defending.
Noting the nationwide protests over police use of deadly force and the constant criticisms NOPD endures as it struggles to reform under a Federal consent decree, I ask her, “Why would anyone want to join the New Orleans Police Department?”
Mrs. McNeil, a case manager at a private home for people with disabilities, listens intently and responds resolutely: “We’re excited,” she says of her husband’s new police career. “He has wanted to make a difference in this city for a long time. He’s always wanted to (join the NOPD).”
She carries Camille confidently toward the celebratory families gathered in the sunshine, and crowds part like the sea for the mother and her child.
The reporter puts the same question to two commanders, both 40-year veterans of the NOPD, enjoying the post-graduation camaraderie. “Every day, I ask that question,” Deputy Police Chief Robert Bardy says, smiling. “Every day I get up and come to work.”
Bardy’s “pitch” to prospective recruits? “When people are faced with challenge, that’s when their true character comes to surface. Today is the best time to be a New Orleans police officer.” NOPD Capt. Bruce Adams, who commented on police happiness in 2008, today says: “This is a job like no other. I managed to deliver a baby on one call and handle a shooting on the next call. You see the beginning of life and the end of life. I’ve had to shoot people. I’ve been shot four times. Unfortunately, I’ve killed people. But I love the New Orleans Police Department and I love the city of New Orleans.”
The NOPD that Camille’s father has joined faces numerous challenges in a changing world.
Marcus McNeil and NOPD Class No. 171 began training with 32 recruits Sept. 2, 2014, amid a nationwide uproar over police use of deadly force in Ferguson, Missouri. During the class’ seven-month training period, mass demonstrations protested fatal police encounters with black males in New York City, Cleveland and other U.S. cities.
On Dec. 18, 2014, President Obama ordered a national blue-ribbon panel to present recommendations for “building trust” between police and the communities they serve. Days later, two New York City police officers in Brooklyn, New York were fatally shot in their patrol car by a deranged gunman who then took his own life. In Florida that same weekend a Tarpon Springs Police officer was fatally shot by a wanted fugitive, later captured. Pro-police counter-demonstrations began nationwide.
In New Orleans, violent crime surges. There are only 22 homicide detectives – down seven from 2014 – to investigate an increasing number of murders. NOPD is some 500 officers short of the mayor’s goal of 1,600 officers. After a budget-related hiring freeze thaws, a rejuvenated recruiting drive lags behind veteran attrition.
Black protestors call on District Attorney Cannizzaro to prosecute former NOPD cops after a coroner re-classified the grisly post-Katrina police killing of Henry Glover as a “homicide.” The Glover case is a festering sore, an obstacle to improving NOPD relations with the city’s majority black population.
Blacks still account for more than 50 percent of the NOPD, thanks to previous federal consent decree. The Landrieu Administration was unable to provide updated demographics at press time, but the number of new black recruits is dropping. Of the 27 recruits in Class No. 171, there are 17 whites, two Hispanics (both male) and eight blacks, including Camille’s father.
Meanwhile, a court-appointed monitor of the consent decree plan to reform the troubled NOPD states that training for recruits and veterans alike improved little since a DOJ report detailed widespread deficiencies in March 2011 – nearly four years ago. The appointment of Lt. Richard Williams to transform NOPD training inspires “cautious optimism” (ConsentDecreeMonitor.com).
At their graduation, Mayor Mitch Landrieu reminds Class No. 171 of the “awesome responsibility” they face. It is a burden “you will handle with great grace and great dignity because you are with the new NOPD.”
Police Chief Michael Harrison, addressing his first graduation class since the Mayor elevated him from lieutenant to superintendent Aug. 18, 2014, says: “It is never ‘us against them’. We are all part of the community.”
Without mentioning front-page news that morning on the Glover case, D.A. Cannizzaro says: “It’s not an easy time to be a member of the New Orleans Police Department, and that’s what makes your commitment more important.”
He urges them to become “ambassadors” for the criminal justice system.
“Show courtesy and respect” to citizens and arrested persons alike, he says, suggesting civility can be more than its own reward. An officer’s case is only as good as the information he collects on the street, the D.A. says, “Yesterday’s dope dealer will be tomorrow’s murder victim or murder suspect.”
Expect “frustrations,” the prosecutor adds, including long waits to testify in court and repeated encounters with people who police arrest for drug violations.
Be prepared to meet a “snotty, young defense attorney … who will call you a ‘liar’ and say you’re a ‘bad’ police officer,” Cannizzaro says, smiling, as the crowd laughs. “As much as you are going to want to jump out of your chair and put your hands around his neck, you can’t do that.”
Melanie Talia, executive director of the nonprofit New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation, promises support for the new officers, “They will service our community with courage and professionalism, and I look forward to working with each and every one of them.”After the graduation, Mrs. McNeil waits in line to congratulate her husband, looking sharp in white gloves and a blue uniform. She shields Camille from the sun, tugging a blanket corner over the baby’s head.