New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has selected a veteran cop who once commanded officers in her City Council district as the city’s next police chief.
Shaun Ferguson, a commander who oversees the Police Department’s education and training division, was announced as the replacement for Superintendent Michael Harrison on Monday.
The 46-year-old previously served as commander of Uptown’s 2nd District and Algiers’ 4th District. In 2004, as a beat cop who had not yet risen to commander, he was named the 4th District officer of the year.
In picking Ferguson, Cantrell will break with a longstanding local tradition of convening a search committee or appointing a chief on an interim basis to give them time to meet with community members. But she hewed to another time-honored practice by choosing as chief a veteran officer from within NOPD's ranks.
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She will also have a chief she knows well. When Ferguson led the 2nd District from 2015 to 2018, he interacted often with Cantrell, since her City Council District B covered much of the same territory.
At a City Hall news conference, Cantrell said Ferguson earned her respect with his commitment to being "fair, firm and friendly." She also said her background as a grassroots civic activist in Broadmoor, her subsequent tenure as a councilwoman, and a seven-month transition period before being sworn in as mayor in May gave her the necessary perspective to select Ferguson without a lengthy search process or public input.
The speedy and opaque selection process has drawn some criticism, but her homeland security director, retired Marine Col. Terry Ebbert, said Cantrell was right to quickly appoint Ferguson.
"Organizations often put in an interim and spiral downward," said Ebbert, whose office works closely with the Police Department. "We don't have to face that, and delayed action in leadership is never the way to go."
Harrison served as an interim chief for two months before then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu appointed him on a permanent basis.
Bill Quigley, a law professor at Loyola University who has been active in the effort to reform NOPD, said he would have preferred a more open selection process.
"I didn't see any urgency to get him in here, to name somebody without having the various stakeholders at least give some input," Quigley said. "We have had a troubled police force for decades, and it does seem to be a bit better than it was, but it's a big job."
New Orleans police chief Michael Harrison is headed to Baltimore.
While Ferguson lacks citywide name recognition or long experience atop one of the department’s bureaus, he appears to enjoy respect among fellow officers. At Monday's news conference, officials noted how Ferguson was the first high-ranking cop the outgoing chief sent to the Police Executive Research Forum’s senior management institute, a three-week program at Boston University.
Ferguson said he also sought other similar leadership training as it became clear he would be in contention to one day become New Orleans' top cop.
"He's prepared himself," Harrison said. "I have confidence Ferguson will move the department forward."
After the announcement, a neighborhood leader who once worked closely with Ferguson in Algiers said she was pleased.
"I think people will find him very responsive. He listened to what we had to say, he follows up and makes sure that our concerns have been addressed," said Yvonne Mitchell-Grubb, president of the Walnut Bend Civic Association. "We felt pretty at ease in calling him up."
Business leader Gregory Rusovich, the immediate past chairman of the nonprofit New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation, which supports NOPD, said he anticipates Ferguson will have the same positive relationship with local entrepreneurs that Harrison did.
Eric Hessler, an attorney with the Police Association of New Orleans, said, “My opinion is that he is perfectly fit to take the helm.”
Meanwhile, Ferguson’s role at the training academy, though he has only been there since June, means he has already interacted with the federal monitors overseeing the department’s 2012 reform plan, called a consent decree. That document required extensive improvements to the lessons that turn recruits into officers.
After the surprise departure of New Orleans Police Superintendent Michael Harrison for the top job in Baltimore, the city won't be waiting lon…
Cantrell and other city leaders are eager to lead the department out of the consent decree, which entails intrusive and expensive oversight from monitors appointed by a federal judge. In a letter last month, she and other city officials questioned whether the city needed to continue spending so much money on federal monitors.
Hessler, whose organization has been critical of the consent decree’s sweeping mandates, said he thinks Ferguson shares some of his concerns, based on their interactions around officers facing discipline.
“I think he understands the problems that are facing the Police Department – and the problems that have been created by the consent decree,” he said. “I think he’s of the mindset that the department needs a little more autonomy to deal with very, very minor violations that simply clog the system up.”
Harrison, who announced Tuesday that he was leaving for Baltimore to guide that city’s police force through its own consent decree, was the chief who assigned Ferguson to lead the academy.
In a statement, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said that role afforded Ferguson "an excellent understanding of the challenges the NOPD faces regarding the recruitment and training of new officers."
In an interview last week, Harrison declined to name his favored successor, but he said he was convinced that any of his top-ranking officers would perform well.
Like Ferguson, Harrison was a relative unknown when then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu chose him as chief in August 2014. Eventually, Harrison drew widespread praise from politicians and the consent decree monitors for his leadership.
“I think Shaun is qualified,” Hessler said. “You can look back to when they appointed a sergeant – Warren Woodfork – as chief of police. And in my personal opinion, I think Woodfork was a very good chief of police.”
Other candidates mentioned by insiders and observers as potential replacements for Harrison included Deputy Superintendents Paul Noel, John Thomas and Christopher Goodly, and 8th District Cmdr. Nicholas Gernon.
It’s not clear how seriously Cantrell considered them, or whether they met with the mayor, as Ferguson did. Ferguson said Cantrell offered him the job either on Tuesday or Wednesday of last week. Harrison announced his departure on Tuesday.
The new chief used some of his remarks at the briefing to address the recruits with whom he had been working, saying that he was proof of the possibility of advancement at NOPD.
"Keep your dreams ahead of you," Ferguson said. "Keep pushing, keep striving."
He acknowledged the magnitude of the assignment has since caused him some sleepless nights. Yet on Monday he said he was ready to preserve the gains the city made in its fight against violent crime last year, when New Orleans recorded its fewest number of murders since 1971 -- 146 -- as well as a 28 percent drop in the number of non-fatal shootings.
Ferguson, a 21-year veteran, was tight-lipped when asked for specifics on how he intended to do that, saying he needed to assess the options. He also made it clear that he sees room for improvement throughout the force despite the steady progress.
"I'm proud of how far our department has come, ... but I’m saying we have some work to do," Ferguson said.
Ferguson’s elevation to superintendent could set off a reshuffling of the NOPD’s top ranks, especially if any deputy chiefs or commanders follow Harrison to Baltimore. Harrison said Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has given him leeway to pick his top managers, and he hasn't ruled out looking to bring some of his right-hand men and women from his time atop NOPD.
Ferguson declined to discuss how or when he might alter NOPD's command staff, saying he still needed to evaluate any potential changes.
Harrison's last day is Friday, when Ferguson's swearing-in ceremony is also set.