11/28/2006

41 New Orleans recruits, first since Katrina, face first day of training

By Laura Maggi, Staff writer
Times-Picayune

For the 41 recruits who signed on to join the depleted ranks of the New Orleans Police Academy, the first day of training Monday made clear a harsh reality: Not all of them will make it.

Several struggled with the physical challenges: push-ups, runs around the refurbished academy building on City Park Avenue and, later, at a track in the park. If past years are any guide, veteran officers said, some also will falter after academic classes begin this week.

The recruits ranged from the minimum required age -- 21 -- up to a 49-year-old former State Police trooper. While more men than women signed up, the group included a range of ethnicities. Some were in top physical condition, while others were saddled with extra pounds that will need to be shed before they can pass the academy's final tests.

They all expressed admiration for police work and the New Orleans Police Department, but cited individual motivations for signing up: family tradition, financial security, helping rebuild a broken city.

"Some of you may not be here by Friday," New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley told the class, the first since Hurricane Katrina.

He noted that the department heaps verbal abuse and physical training on recruits to prepare them for the tough life of a police officer -- and to weed out those who can't hack it. "You have people screaming in your face because, if you can take it in the academy, you can take it on the streets of New Orleans," Riley said.

Personnel shortages

The department needs as many recruits as possible to make it. Riley currently commands 1,424 officers, but more than 100 of those are on leave because of illness or other problems, the chief said. After Katrina, the department's attrition rate accelerated, prompting Mayor Ray Nagin to warn earlier this month that, without effective recruitment, the number of officers could drop to fewer than 1,000 in two or three years.

In order to achieve the Nagin administration's goal of a 1,600-officer force, the academy will likely need to graduate 200 officers a year for the next three years, said Robert Stellingworth, president of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, a nonprofit group that assists the police, including with recruitment efforts.

With the help of the foundation, the department began a campaign several weeks ago, running commercials on local radio and putting up billboards across the metropolitan area. The local promotion uses $85,000 raised by the foundation and other post-Katrina donations to NOPD, but a larger effort across the South or nationwide would cost substantially more, Riley said in a recent interview.

With beginning salaries for rookies at $30,607 and an officer with one year on the job making $36,575, including state supplemental pay, the department is better able than in previous years to lure potential officers also looking at other jurisdictions.

Post-Katrina challenges

But with post-Katrina housing shortages, the NOPD also has unique challenges, not just in attracting new personnel, but in keeping experienced officers from leaving. During his recent budget address, Nagin said the city would start a housing program geared specifically for police officers, although the details have remained sketchy. Riley said the city administration is still developing the program.

Several of the recruits out doing push-ups on asphalt Monday signed up to join NOPD's ranks before the storm, but had to wait more than year for classes to begin.

Mark Smutny, 44, moved to New Orleans just days before Katrina to embark on a midlife career change. Although the storm forced him to look elsewhere for work, because the department training apparatus had collapsed, Smutny said he stayed focused on returning. He moved back to the city this summer, taking a temporary job in the NOPD evidence and property room.

"This is something I always wanted to do," he said.

After spending 12 years in the Army Reserve, Smutny was prepared for the quasi-military training employed at the academy, although he noted that at his age the physical training will be challenging. Capt. Ernest Demma, the commander of the Police Academy, said typical recruitment classes include a diverse collection of potential new officers. Some experienced professionals, such as Smutny, are looking for a second career, he said. The class also includes younger people hoping to spend their whole working lives as police officers.

Several recruits decided to join up to follow the path of elder relatives. Jemar Goines, 23, has wanted to be a police officer since the eighth grade, despite the wishes of his father -- NOPD Detective Joe Goines, who works in the sex crimes unit -- that his son pursue a law career after graduating from college.

Goines wouldn't be swayed from his goal of becoming a homicide detective. "It is a big old puzzle, and you try to put the pieces together," he said.

Physical, mental hurdles

The 22 weeks of academy will prove too tough for some recruits, Demma said. Historically, about 10 percent to 15 percent of a class can't cut it, failing either the physical or the classroom tests, he said.

The first few days focus on the physical rigors of academy training, as well as following military-style discipline. Recruits must line up in formation, stand at attention and turn on command.

"I can't believe you can't give me a straight line. A line is all I am asking for, not your first-born," barked officer David Duplantier during the morning session, as he paced between the lines of recruits, ordering them to get the proper distance apart.

By the end of the academy, recruits will be required to do 29 sit-ups within one minute; run a mile and a half in 16 minutes and 28 seconds; and, right afterward, a 300-meter dash in 71 seconds. The recruits also must show they can do 25 pushups, with no time limit.

They will also need to pass a series of written and, sometimes practical, tests, including Louisiana laws and criminal procedure, investigations, writing reports, using firearms properly, protecting themselves with defensive tactics, and traffic enforcement.

"We take this raw recruit and teach him how to be a police officer," Demma said.

On Monday, academy officers said they could see several recruits struggling to keep up with the regime. Even with diet and an exercise regime, some might find it hard to pass the physical test, said officer Larry Cager Jr. "We try to give them until the end, but sometimes it is not enough time to condition the body," he said.

Although she could barely manage one pushup, Ceion Taylor, 28, said she's dedicated to becoming a police officer. A civilian employee with NOPD before Katrina, Taylor was laid off after the storm along with many other office workers.

Taylor had signed up to join the force before the storm and began working out to trim down. But post-Katrina life in hotels with her four children and husband put a dent in her discipline. The family has since relocated to Houma, providing a long commute for Taylor.

Still, becoming a police officer will provide necessary financial security for her children, so Taylor said she will get in shape.

"I'm doing my best -- I won't give up," she said.

Copyright 2006 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company

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