By Adam Thorp
A newly released report grapples with the array of issues facing the Louisiana Police Department including budget troubles and a tight-as-a-drum staffing situation.
Joel Shults, a consultant that works with police departments, was brought in through the initiative of Louisiana Mayor Marvin Brown a few months ago. The city received his report about two weeks ago. It was released to the press late last week after city officials had had a chance to peruse the report and consider their response.
The report’s epigraph—a Biblical quotation depicting Pharoah’s unreasonable demands of captive Jews—foreshadows Shults’ presentation of the city’s staffing situation.
Louisiana, Shults concluded, shared challenges with recruitment and retention with departments around the county. Its proximity to the St. Louis suburbs and high-wage Illinois cities made the situation more acute.
“LPD is unlikely to recruit officers for the foreseeable future that will remain with the department for more than five years given the relatively low pay compounding the national challenges faced by all agencies,” Shults wrote.
Given that handicap, Shults suggested recruiting officers for a contractually secured two-year stint, with the understanding that it will be a first step in a career that will probably bring them to other agencies. In an interview Friday, Brown said he was impressed by the diagnosis and prescription.
“I think its pretty clear that most of the turnover is related to the fact that we can’t compete salary-wise,” Brown wrote.
Shults issued a note of caution over the department’s staffing situation—warning against the effectiveness of police response that relies on excessive overtime, on-call officers or part-time officers. Shults ultimately recommended that Louisiana staff up in order to maintain 24/7 staffing without too much overtime—a suggestion city leadership was leery of, at least in the short term.
“The reality is that until the city’s overall revenue situation changes we are not going to have enough staff,” Brown said.
In the alternative, Shults suggested deploying civilian community service officers, on a lower-paid or volunteer basis, to do work that doesn’t require a badge and keeping any period of on-call only staffing as short as possible.
Louisiana’s budget problems are tied into the decline or stagnation of several revenue streams—but no source of income has fallen as dramatically as the fines generated by enforcement actions by the police department. The recently passed 2019-2020 city budget includes a hoped-for increase in this line item over last year.
Shults emphasized in his report that policing strategies should not be driven by financial needs.
“It is undesirable that the public should get the impression that when traffic enforcement increases it is because the city has chosen to raise revenue by using its armed agents to extract money from its citizens by the informal taxing of petty violations¨ or by imposing enforcement quotas on its officers,” Shults wrote.
Instead he recommended an emphasis on standardizing responses to lawbreaking across the police force in the interest of public safety. In line with that goal, Shults notes, Louisiana could train to enforce local, state and federal regulations of commercial trucks, among other strategies.
Shults also suggested Louisiana consider outsourcing the functions of its municipal court to the Associate Circuit Court in Bowling Green as another cost-saving measure.
Brown said city officials were skeptical about the possibility.
“It would mean kind of losing some control of how our municipal violations that we’re not ready to give up,” Brown said.
Shults closed his report by addressing two issues outside of his remit: the future of Louisiana Police Chief April Epperson and the department she leads. Should Louisiana change its police leadership or drop its police department altogether?
Shults answered no on both counts.
Without a local department, Shults wrote, Louisiana would have to rely on state or county-level agencies—or even a private contractor—to see to its law enforcement needs. Ultimately, Shults said, this option was a bad bet.
“Deficiencies in contract compliance are difficult to remedy, the vicissitudes of politics of a sheriff’s department and its personalities are unpredictable, and re-establishing a local department after it has been decommissioned can be prohibitive,” Shults wrote in response to emailed questions
Epperson, Shults said, had handled a difficult time in her department with aplomb.
“Your chief deserves… support, encouragement and celebration. The stability she has brought to the LPD is a critical infrastructure that can be built upon and should be preserved,” Shults wrote.