New Orleans Police Find Eager Recruits
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In New Orleans, one of the first aspects of city life to get back to normal after Hurricane Katrina was the murder rate. In two and a half years later, the police department is struggling to deal with it. After this storm, the department lost hundreds of officers, but these days it's having success of attracting new recruits.
NPR's Audie Cornish spent a day at the police academy.
Sergeant CLARENCE GELARD(ph) (Drill Sergeant, New Orleans Police Department): When are you going to stop trying, recruit?
Ms. RIANNDA EDRISON(ph) (Police Recruit): Never sir.
AUDIE CORNISH: With her petit frame, pixie hair cut and braces, Riannda Edrison is one of the smaller recruits. Of course, she didn't need to be that big at her old job at the Great American Cookie Company.
Sgt. GELARD: Are you walking, already?
CORNISH: Edrison, her home and her neighborhood survived Hurricane Katrina. Her career did not.
Ms. EDRISON: I'm tired of cookies. Ten years, I mean, I feel like this department needed me more than Great American Cookies.
Sgt. GELARD: You better move faster than that if you want to keep...
CORNISH: But Edrison might be begging for cookies before police training is through.
Sgt. GELARD: No help (unintelligible).
CORNISH: This is the first day of 19 weeks at the New Orleans Police Academy for her and 53 other new recruits.
Sgt. GELARD: You quitting? Please don't come back.
CORNISH: Make that 52. Ten minutes in, one recruit has already had it - had it with the push-ups, the squats, the endless laps around the academy building, and had it with NOPD drill Sergeant Clarence Gelard.
Sgt. GELARD: Please quit. Don't come back.
Unidentified Female: I won't.
Sgt. GELARD: Please don't comeback.
CORNISH: Gelard tosses a clip board with resignation forms in front of her sweating face.
Sgt. GELARD: (Unintelligible)
CORNISH: Her knees surrender to the ground. She loosens the pen, signs the paper and limps away.
For this recruit, hell day with police academy Class 160 is over.
Sgt. GERALD: It's not my fault.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, Gerald and his fellow training officers hammer away at the other weaklings.
Sgt. GELARD: I'm going to make you quit.
Unidentified Male: Do you really want to be here?
Sgt. GELARD: No, you don't. No, you don't. Get off your knee. Get off your knee.
CORNISH: Later on, the police hopefuls will have it a lot tougher when the New Orleans sun will make a pushup feel like hugging a hot stove. But the ones who can't make it through this battery of drills and verbal abuse get no sympathy.
Sgt. GELARD: You cannot help us fight what's going on the in the city of New Orleans, if you cannot follow simple directions right here. Those people out there that's committing crimes will run all over you.
CORNISH: The New Orleans Police Department lost hundreds of officers after Hurricane Katrina. Several dozen were fired for abandoning their posts during the storm. Many others retired. Still more were poached by cities who could offer more money and less stress. The department needs at least 300 more officers than it's got in order to fight crime in the city on the way to leading the nation in homicides. And that's what the population some three-fourths of what it was before the storm.
(Soundbite of train honking)
CORNISH: After lunch, the recruits get a reprieve from the parking lot calisthenics, where Police Chief Warren Riley arrives for a kind of pep talk.
Chief WARREN RILEY (Police Chief, New Orleans Police Department): Regardless of some of the things that you may have heard criticizing us, this police department has been through hell. Every man and woman on this job was affected by Katrina. Eighty percent lost their homes and their property. Living in a FEMA trailer, going to roll call in a Fema trailer, and then patrolling areas with FEMA trailers. Nobody in this country has had to do this.
CORNISH: Now, attrition has slowed, and the department is one of the best paid in the state. But Riley says anybody looking for a desk job should keep walking. All new officers are now required to spend their first two years working the streets.
Chief RILEY: We have the fourth largest prison in America right here in the city of New Orleans. We probably have as many bad people per capita as any place in the country, which means you going to have encounters, more routine than in other cities. This is not Mayberry.
CORNISH: That's fine with Sherish Davis(ph).
Mr. SHERISH DAVIS (Recruit, New Orleans Police Academy): I'm not really interested too much in the ticket writing and all of that.
CORNISH: Like several people in this recruit class, Davis is an Iraq war veteran. After his tour of duty with Air Force, Davis settled in Jacksonville, Florida. But his father lived and worked as a police officer in New Orleans. Davis followed his father onto the force, because after years of service abroad, he wanted to help and protect his own family.
Mr. DAVIS: This city is no worse than Afghanistan or Pakistan, Iraq. And so I look to coast right on in, and hopefully, they won't kill me in the academy.
CORNISH: Riannda Edrison is hoping the same. She, too, is worried about her family. Edrison has a 10-year-old daughter named Jania(ph) who's basically been trying to talk her out of this.
Ms. EDRISON: Basically, when I tell her from day to day is I'm trying to better my life so I can better your life.
CORNISH: And even though she had a home and a job selling cookies, she said this was the chance to change their lives.
Ms. EDRISON: I feel like I want to stop crime. I want to be a part of that, you know, whether it's anything simple like auto theft or just any kind of crime, I just want to be there. I just want to help the next person. That's it.
CORNISH: The recruits drops back to formation, where Sgt. Gelard is waiting.
Audie Cornish, NPR News.
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