Beat cop Shaun Ferguson was patrolling near the Fischer housing development after midnight in 2001 when he heard the words that still haunt him crackle over the radio.
“I’ve been shot,” another cop yelled to the dispatchers. It was Officer Juan Barnes Sr., one of Ferguson’s comrades in the Algiers-based 4th District of New Orleans.
“Tell my wife that I love her,” Barnes said.
Ferguson and other officers rushed to the scene of the shooting. Barnes was hit, and blood poured out of him as his fellow officers tried to help.
After a long, painful recovery, Barnes survived.
But the fellow officer’s brush with death became a formative experience for Ferguson, and one he still remembers clearly nearly two decades later after being sworn in recently as superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department.
The crucible of Algiers, an area apart from the rest of New Orleans with its own history of violence and police brutality, helped shape the 21-year NOPD veteran’s approach to the job.
“We were a close-knit unit,” Ferguson said of his early days. “It has just humbled me throughout my career as to how to work with people, and how you should be a brotherhood-sisterhood with each other while taking care of your community.”
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has selected a veteran cop who once commanded officers in her City Council district as the city’s next polic…
Algiers was a tough place to be a cop as Ferguson was moving up the ranks, and developing relationships with the community while remaining tough on criminals was a daily battle.
In the late 1990s, the neighborhood still had a lingering distrust of the police from the notorious “Algiers 7” police shootings that left four black people dead as officers hunted for the killer of a white cop in 1980.
Now Ferguson must apply those lessons to controlling crime in a city that is still one of the nation’s most violent, while implementing a highly complex, federally mandated reform plan designed to keep something like the Algiers 7 shootings from ever happening again.
The 21-year veteran was a relative unknown when Mayor LaToya Cantrell tapped him to replace outgoing chief Michael Harrison, who left for the top police job in Baltimore.
Overall, Ferguson's work history, coupled with interviews with fellow cops, community members and other public officials, shows an officer equally comfortable charging through doors as shaking hands.
But his record is not without a blemish. And there was one discrepancy in his resumé as submitted for consideration for the chief’s job.
Other questions that remain include whether Ferguson will be able to see the department through its federal consent decree and extend the recent drop in violent crime. Neither is guaranteed in a city that has seen progress in its police force evaporate before.
A delayed start
Ferguson, 46, first applied to join the NOPD in 1995, when the city had just seen its highest-ever murder count. It was a department in shambles, sullied by terrible crime statistics and violence coming from inside the department itself. A policewoman had a hand in killing her partner and two others during a botched robbery at a New Orleans East restaurant, and a policeman had a hit man murder a woman who had filed a brutality complaint against him.
In a lengthy interview detailing his career, Ferguson said he was accepted into the police academy, but after talking with his parents, he backed out.
“You had some high tension between the community and the Police Department,” he said. “My parents … were not comfortable with me being on the job.”
His application remained on file, however. The department came calling again in 1998. This time Ferguson — and his parents — saw a different police force. Reform-minded Superintendent Richard Pennington, hired in 1994, had managed to put the department on a new course.
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“Pennington came as a reform agent, and upon doing so, he earned a lot of the community’s trust,” he said.
Ferguson’s first assignment was in Algiers, the same neighborhood where he grew up. Although crime had fallen under Pennington’s watch, it still plagued much of the city, including Algiers.
Sitting in his new corner office on the top floor of police headquarters, Ferguson smiled when he was asked about his “favorite” moments from that first tour of duty.
There weren’t many favorites. It was too perilous.
“The clientele back then was rougher,” recalled Barnes, a friend of Ferguson's back then, and now an NOPD public information officer. “We went out there every day with courage, determination.”
Ferguson and other cops were assigned to a task force which proactively sought out criminals instead of waiting for 911 calls.
The team quickly won recognition for their hands-on approach. Ferguson was named 4th District officer of the year in 2000, 2002 and 2003, according to his resumé.
It was during this period, on March 28, 2001, that Barnes was shot in the Fischer complex.
He was left with gunshot wounds to his right lung and left leg. His tibia had to be rebuilt with a bone graft before he could walk again. During his year-long recovery, the cops on his squad — Ferguson among them — donated sick days, called constantly and organized fundraisers.
“They've been 100 percent, anything I needed, anything I wanted,” Barnes said.
Up the ranks
Afterward, Ferguson began his long rise through the department’s ranks.
The homicide squad appealed to the Southern University at New Orleans graduate. He liked the idea of putting the pieces of the puzzle together on complicated investigations. He was placed on murder cases in Algiers, and his neighborhood savvy helped.
“I had a little knowledge of some of the players out there,” Ferguson said. “A little extra on my side where I could get those cases solved.”
Between 2004 and 2007, he worked "persons crimes" in the 3rd and 8th districts, which respectively patrol areas such as Gentilly and the French Quarter. It was in the latter job that he weathered Hurricane Katrina.
The storm brought out the best and worst in the NOPD. Some officers saved lives while others took them — or deserted their city.
Once again, the old 4th District task force crew leaned on each other. “We just stayed together. If one needed to go check on a house, we all went together,” he said.
Ferguson’s Algiers home emerged unscathed, aside from losing power. He opened it up to fellow officers.
“We would go and take our showers there,” he said. “In the dark, but we got warm fresh water.”
While Ferguson patrolled the French Quarter and Central Business District, colleagues across the river were involved in an incident that reopened the unhealed scars of the Algiers 7 shootings and erased trust the department had rebuilt under Pennington.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell sent a pointed letter last month to a federal judge and the monitors overseeing the reform push at the New Orleans Polic…
A white rookie cop shot a man named Henry Glover who was trying to pick up goods pilfered from a strip mall. The cop said he thought Glover had a gun.
Another cop drove a car with Glover’s body inside it to the levee and set it on fire. Federal prosecutors said it was all part of a larger cover-up.
The cause of Glover's death was kept under wraps for years. Today, only one officer involved in the case is in prison — the one who burned the car with Glover’s body inside.
Ferguson emerged from the aftermath of Katrina with no known blotches on his record. He was promoted to sergeant in 2007 and returned to the homicide beat from 2011 to 2012.
One of the most high-profile cases he oversaw was the shooting of Harry “Mike” Ainsworth. Moments after dropping his two sons off at their school bus stop, Ainsworth was fatally shot in Algiers Point while trying to defend a woman who was being carjacked.
Ferguson said the detectives on the case deserve the credit for the arrest and conviction of the suspect, Kendall Harrison, who’s now serving a life sentence.
“What I can take credit for is taking individuals and bringing the best out of individuals and making them a team,” he said.
Those leadership attributes may have won the notice of then-Superintendent Ronal Serpas, who named Ferguson as commander of the 4th District in 2014 to replace a captain who had been sidelined amid an internal investigation.
Ferguson said that when he finally sat down in his office at the 4th District, he looked back on a profession that had started as just a job but became a calling.
“I did not ever imagine myself on the other side of the desk as the commanding officer,” he said. “It was an overwhelming feeling, but I’ll never forget it.”
As commander, Ferguson won plaudits for his open-door policy. His neighborhood bona fides helped soothe tensions in the years following Katrina.
Earlier in his career, Ferguson had arrested some members of the extended Glover family when they were still kids, and had tried to set them on the right path. Other Glovers attended Central City’s First Emanuel Baptist Church with him.
One of the church's members, Henry Glover’s aunt Rebecca, said she wishes him well. “I just hope he stays prayed up and does the right thing,” she said.
First Emanuel's pastor, the Rev. Charles Southall, describes Ferguson as an “upstanding community person” and a “man of faith.”
Ferguson also sits on the board of the Jugs Social Club, which organizes the historically black Krewe of NOMTOC's Carnival parade on the west bank.
New Orleans police chief Michael Harrison is headed to Baltimore.
Given his deep community ties, Ferguson may have been destined to cross paths with LaToya Cantrell, who began as a neighborhood organizer before becoming a City Council member and then mayor.
Ferguson said he first met Cantrell as a lieutenant in the 2nd District, where he served from 2012 to 2014. Cantrell led the Broadmoor Improvement Association at the time. As they walked side by side during a neighborhood "walk against crime" one day, he noticed her picking up trash.
Cantrell told him she hated to see the neighborhood blighted.
“So that started a conversation,” Ferguson said. “We just kind of hit it off from there.”
They stayed connected while Ferguson moved between posts. He commanded the 4th District, the 2nd District and the training academy over the last six years.
During their many interactions, Cantrell has said that he left her with the impression that he was “fair, firm and friendly.”
A single blemish
As he ascended into the upper tier of NOPD leadership, Ferguson maintained a near-spotless disciplinary record, with the exception of a single sustained complaint three years ago.
Investigators said Ferguson was on duty as the 2nd District commander on March 28, 2016, when he blew through a stop sign at Eighth and St. Thomas streets obscured by an overgrown tree. Another car crashed into his NOPD cruiser.
None of the responding officers noticed signs of impairment, but as per NOPD policy, Ferguson took a blood alcohol test. He tested at .03, well below the legal driving limit of .08. Under NOPD policy, however, no officer can drive with any amount of alcohol in their blood.
Ferguson later explained that he had been drinking the night before at an Easter celebration.
If Ferguson had been a regular patrolman, he would have been suspended for a couple of days. However, Superintendent Harrison, the man Ferguson describes as his mentor, ordered him to serve a five-day suspension.
Criminologists could no doubt cite many reasons for the drop in New Orleans's murder rate, which coincides with a nationwide downward trend, b…
“We as commanding officers should be held to a higher standard,” Ferguson said. “He was fair across the board.”
Ferguson said his commitment to accountability does not conflict with caring for officers, even ones who have fallen under criminal suspicion.
In August 2015, during jury selection for veteran 4th District Officer Michael Thomassie’s trial on allegations of raping a 7-year-old girl, Thomassie received a pair of text messages from Ferguson.
“How are you making out?” Ferguson wrote. “Good luck brother.”
Thomassie eventually pleaded guilty to forcible rape and sexual molestation of a juvenile under age 13.
Ferguson said he does not remember sending the messages, but that they were not out of character.
“That is who I am. I encourage anyone that is going through something, I wish them the best. When I’ve taken people to jail I have encouraged them to have a better life, to make a better decision,” he said.
‘Ready to be my chief?’
Cantrell’s warm impression of Ferguson remained with her when, early last month, Harrison said he was stepping down to take over Baltimore’s troubled department.
Keen to name a successor quickly, Cantrell summoned Ferguson to her office on Jan. 9, two days after Harrison informed her he was leaving. He recalls her opening the conversation simply: “Are you ready to be my chief?”
Ferguson said he paused and let out a deep breath before responding.
“Whatever the city asks of me,” he told her.
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Despite speculation from some political insiders, Ferguson said he had never had a conversation with Cantrell about the chief’s job before last month.
Cantrell revealed Ferguson as her permanent choice on Jan. 14, breaking with the tradition of forming a search committee or appointing an interim chief who would be given time to meet the community before getting the job permanently.
The speedy transition meant the public had little chance to probe Ferguson’s background before he was named chief, a process that is beginning as he takes the reins.
In a copy of his most recent resumé, obtained through a public records request after Cantrell’s announcement, Ferguson claimed that he “reduced crime by 10-15 percent within two years” as commander of the 4th District.
A New Orleans Advocate analysis of the city’s 911 database suggests that crime actually rose by 25 percent during Ferguson’s tenure there, outstripping the citywide 11 percent increase.
Through a spokesman, Ferguson called the misstatement a “typo,” adding that he meant to refer to a different metric that did in fact decline according to internal department records.
The city’s new chief took his oath with fanfare in front of Gallier Hall on Jan. 18. Ferguson quickly received a reminder that being the top cop comes with greater scrutiny.
Hours after he was sworn in, a woman accused his son Shane of punching her in the face, according to police. Officers issued a warrant for Shane Ferguson, who turned himself in within days.
Shaun Ferguson promises his four children will never receive special treatment.
“It’s called accountability,” he said. “He has to go through his due process, just as any other individual who’s accused of any criminal wrongdoing.”
His son’s legal problems aside, Ferguson said he is focused on the task of overseeing the roughly 1,200 officers who patrol what is still one of the country’s most dangerous cities.
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So far, Ferguson has not announced any major changes to his predecessor’s approach to violent crime or to the department’s reform agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, called a consent decree.
Harrison left with positive approval ratings and glowing reviews from local politicians.
With the department now in his hands, Ferguson suggested he would like to hold onto proven strategies while making tweaks where needed.
“We’ll change as we need to change,” he said. “We definitely want to go with the momentum that we ended 2018 with.”
He stresses the virtues of a smooth transition. Ferguson shadowed Harrison during his last week in office, and their conversations have continued since then, he said.
“I have not stopped talking to Chief Harrison since he left. I talk to him almost every day,” Ferguson said. “It means the world not just to me personally or him but to the troops in this uniform as well as to our community to know that we’re still in the right direction, we’re still going forward.”