New Police Chief Ronal Serpas has his work cut out for him, but he starts with a reservoir of good will amid high hopes from the public — and on the cusp of federal intervention into NOPD's affairs. Like his boss, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Serpas will have to establish himself quickly as a leader and reformer. His best shot is by cleaning house at NOPD.
Former cops and quite a few elected officials in the criminal justice system tell me that Serpas is a good choice. To a person, they attest to his honesty and his dedication to cleaning up NOPD. "Nobody's perfect," Landrieu said last week in defending Serpas against old allegations in his NOPD file. "Everybody's got strengths and weaknesses," the mayor said, adding that Serpas "represents the best of both worlds."
"Both worlds" means someone who understands New Orleans and NOPD's unique culture as well as someone who is untainted by the current morass that is suffocating the department and its many, many honest cops. Serpas rose to the No. 2 position at NOPD during its best days under former Chief Richard Pennington, then left to build his resume in Washington State and, since 2004, as police chief in Nashville, Tenn. He gets high marks for his performance in both places.
Landrieu has called the appointment of a new police chief his most important decision as the city's new mayor. Before tapping Serpas, Landrieu set up a diverse task force that, in turn, used three international police organizations to vet more than 85 applicants. Landrieu told me last week that Serpas was the unanimous choice of the 25-member interview team that screened the six semi-finalists.
Politically, Landrieu takes a risk in naming a white police chief, but his decision was supported by black leaders here and elsewhere — including praise for Serpas from former Mayor Marc Morial and former chief Pennington.
At the end of the day, results are all that matters. If Serpas can get citizens to take a more proactive approach to fighting crime — particularly in the form of better witness cooperation in crime-ridden neighborhoods — then nobody will care what color he is or what's in his personnel file.
Serpas has a tall order and a tremendous opportunity. Ironically, the imminent federal intervention will probably make his job easier. Nothing cuts through bureaucratic resistance like a federal court order. In fact, federal intervention could become Serpas' most effective crime-fighting weapon.
Correction: In last week's column, I wrote that the Recovery School District fired 7,000 public school employees after taking over dozens of failed local schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. That was not correct. The employees, mostly teachers, were actually fired by the Orleans Parish School Board — but the terminations were triggered by the state takeover and Katrina. The point of the column remains unchanged: Hundreds of retired local teachers still aren't getting their full health care benefits as a result of the terminations, and Senate Bill 240 would provide some badly needed help.
I apologize for the error.