Superintendent Shaun Ferguson shook up the leadership ranks of the New Orleans Police Department on Friday, replacing the commanders whose districts cover the French Quarter and Uptown as part of roughly a dozen personnel moves meant to set the tone for his time as the city’s top cop.

The promotions and other personnel shifts are Ferguson’s most public moves yet aimed at leaving his mark on a force whose reins he inherited in January from Michael Harrison, who retired as NOPD superintendent to become the police commissioner of Baltimore.

The changes — which take effect this weekend — are raising the profile of some tenured veterans, such as Sabrina Richardson and Octavio Baldassaro, by moving them to more prominent positions with greater responsibilities.

At the same time, some of the department leaders shifting to less prominent roles have recently drawn unwanted attention from the new top brass.

Rearrangements at the top of the city’s police force are common when a new superintendent takes over. It is an opportunity to build a leadership team of trusted allies in an agency with sometimes cutthroat internal politics.

It’s also a chance to lower the visibility of officers under an unflattering spotlight, such as when — months after taking office in 2010 — Superintendent Ronal Serpas switched commanders in the lone police district whose citizen satisfaction score had dropped in an annual survey.

“You’re beginning to put your fingerprint on the organizational culture, and you are beginning to put your future into play,” Serpas said Friday when asked about the reasons for such changes. “The movement is expected … and natural.”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell appointed Ferguson to the chief’s post held since 2014 by Harrison, who received praise for improving the reputation of the force under an ongoing federal reform agreement while also posting sharp drops in murders and other violent crimes last year.

Ferguson was appointed just ahead of the busy Carnival season, when the NOPD is tasked with protecting hundreds of thousands of visitors. It’s likely he wanted to wait until the dust settled after Mardi Gras to start moving people around.

Two of the city’s eight districts will have new commanders. A deputy chief and the leader of the force’s office in charge of complying with the conditions of the reform agreement, known as a consent decree, also had to be replaced after they went to Baltimore with Harrison.

Among the most notable changes was the appointment of Cmdr. Doug Eckert as the leader of the Uptown-based 2nd District, which is responsible for much of Uptown and Gert Town. He had been serving as head of the Criminal Investigations Division, which is in charge of homicide and rape detectives across the city.

He will be replacing Jennifer Dupree, who will lose her unclassified rank of commander and return to her Civil Service-protected rank of lieutenant while being stationed in the 3rd District, which patrols Gentilly and Lakeview.

Meanwhile, as reported earlier, Cmdr. Nicholas Gernon of the French Quarter and Central Business District-based 8th District will be replaced by Lt. Octavio Baldassaro, who is being promoted to commander. He has been leading the investigations unit in the 1st District, which includes Mid-City and Treme.

Gernon’s next assignment will be overseeing the crime lab, property handling and evidence processing personnel, replacing Cmdr. Darryl Albert.

Albert’s ouster from that post comes after an investigation into his possibly violating the department's policy prohibiting retaliation.

The complaint that triggered the probe has been deemed unfounded, according to documents provided by Albert's attorney, Donovan Livaccari of the Fraternal Order of Police. But Ferguson has still not reviewed that finding and indicated whether he agrees with it.

The NOPD on Friday said Albert would lose his unclassified rank of commander, return to his Civil Service rank of captain and head a section that houses the canine and horse-mounted units.

Gernon was recently investigated about his handling of a Louisiana State Police complaint regarding the roadside manner of an off-duty sergeant under his command who was pulled over by a trooper in November.

But Gernon will retain his unclassified commander rank, suggesting that the change in the 8th District was more about giving Baldassaro a shot in a higher-profile position.

Ferguson on Friday said Gernon’s background as a former homicide investigator makes him ideal for his new role, especially at a time when the NOPD plans to build its own in-house DNA crime lab after Hurricane Katrina destroyed a prior facility handling that function. Currently, its lab work is processed in partnership with the State Police Crime Lab.

Dupree’s removal as the 2nd District commander comes amid an internal investigation into whether she drove a take-home vehicle out of the permitted 40-mile radius during a time in which was also taking care of a sick relative, sources said.

NOPD officials did not elaborate on the decision to replace Dupree.

The changes at the districts were accompanied by the reshuffling of personnel higher up on the chain of command.

Eckert’s replacement atop the Criminal Investigations Division will be Cmdr. Regina Williams, who has been serving as the second-highest-ranking member of the Public Integrity Bureau after a stint as a supervisor of sexual violence investigators.

Assuming Williams’ old position will be Sabrina Richardson, who is being promoted from the rank of lieutenant after supervising sexual violence investigators as well.

Cmdr. Otha Sandifer, who had been the second-in-command atop the division overseeing implementation of the consent decree, will be promoted to deputy superintendent to occupy the post left vacant by the departure of the section's former boss, Danny Murphy.

Murphy joined Harrison in Baltimore. Sandifer's bureau will now be called the Professional Standards and Accountability Bureau. 

Sandra Contreras, a lieutenant heading the investigations unit at the 3rd District, will be promoted to commander to fill Sandifer’s old spot.

Meanwhile, Paul Noel will be promoted to the position of chief deputy superintendent, placing him just below Ferguson in the hierarchy and above other deputy superintendents.

The new deputy chief of staff will be Dante Bidwell, who has helped manage the consent decree’s implementation. He will replace Eric Melancon, who is joining Harrison and Murphy in Baltimore, which is under its own federal consent decree.

Ferguson’s reconfigured leadership takes office at a time when internal, year-to-date violent crime statistics are off to an encouraging start.

As of Friday afternoon, there had been 24 homicides reported in New Orleans this year — half as many as at the same time in 2018, when the city registered a 47-year low in murders, according to agency figures.

There were also seven fewer nonfatal shootings reported in the city this year as of Friday afternoon than on the same date 12 months earlier.

Still, several high-profile incidents this year have kept crime and public safety on the minds of residents.

A deadly shootout in the Central Business District pitted police against a suspected armed robber and left five bystanders wounded. And an attempted traffic stop this month ended with a stolen car barreling into a beauty salon, killing two people in the vehicle and one in the business, which caught fire.

Shortly before a closed-doors promotional ceremony Friday, Ferguson expressed confidence that his new leadership team will fulfill the twin goals of building on 2018's drop in violent crime while achieving compliance with the costly consent decree.

“These are the moves we believe will continue ... the significant progress we’ve made,” Ferguson said.

Cantrell, who elevated the 21-year NOPD veteran Ferguson to the top job, noted how all of Friday’s moves were made from within the department’s ranks.

“He has demonstrated that, as I have believed since day one, we have what it takes within our police department to continue to serve the citizens of New Orleans at the highest level possible,” she said.


Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

Tags