Richard Pennington, who took over as police chief in New Orleans at the height of the mid-1990s murder epidemic and fulfilled a promise to slash the city’s homicide rate by half, died in hospice care Thursday in Georgia. He was 70.
Hailed for cleaning up a corruption-plagued force that saw two New Orleans police officers sent to death row, Pennington capped off a triumphant eight-year tenure as police superintendent with an unsuccessful bid to take the place of his boss, Marc Morial, as mayor in 2002.
Far from a natural politician, Pennington was beaten handily by businessman Ray Nagin and soon left to become police chief in Atlanta, a job he held until his retirement in 2010.
Pennington suffered a stroke months after he left that job, according to Atlanta media reports.
Word of his death drew a host of fond memories from those who knew and worked with him, including Morial.
"Obviously, I'm in a state of shock. I knew he had been ill," Morial said. "Without question he was my partner in this effort to transform the New Orleans Police Department in a historic way. I think history will record him as the very best police superintendent in the history of the city, given where we started. It was a dramatic transformation."
Morial recalled the political risk of hiring Pennington, at the time a police commander in Washington, D.C. Morial said he had appointed a selection committee months into his first term as mayor but was dissatisfied with the roster of applicants it came up with.
He said he interviewed Pennington on the sly, outfitting him in an NOPD uniform and introducing him in a hastily called news conference at Gallier Hall.
"He was able to speak with some authority about how to really fight violent crime. About substations, deploying of officers on foot, a community policing concept. Other candidates just mouthed 'community policing.' Pennington really described it," Morial said. "My gut told me if I was going to gamble on a candidate, he was the best candidate to gamble on."
That gamble paid off, Morial and others said, although Pennington met a rocky start taking over a force that the former two-term mayor called "broken."
On the very day of the new chief's swearing-in, officer Len Davis ordered a hit on Kim Groves, who had filed a brutality complaint against the officer after she watched him beat up a teenager. FBI agents captured the phone call ordering the hit, but not in time to save Groves.
Pennington got word that day that the FBI was conducting a major probe involving rogue cops.
"Sometimes I felt like I was in a tank of barracudas or piranhas," he later told The Times-Picayune about those first days in office.
New Orleans saw 421 murders that year — a high-water mark even for New Orleans, which has often topped the list of America's most murderous cities.
Things didn't get much better in 1995, which began with the shocking murders carried out by off-duty cop Antoinette Frank and a partner at the Kim Anh restaurant in New Orleans East.
Citizens were shell-shocked, and the new chief promised to clean up the corruption and stem the violence — going a step further by saying he'd cut the murder rate by half.
In 1999, he made good on that promise: The city recorded 159 murders, a drop of 62 percent from 1994. And though many American cities saw diminished violence in the late 1990s — amid a go-go economy, the waning of the crack epidemic and an infusion of federal money to pay for more local cops — no city saw a steeper drop in its murder rate during that time.
"He was unflinching in his willingness to discipline police officers for violations of codes of conduct. The department had a history of looking the other way, slapping the officers on the wrist," Morial said. "Chief Pennington was going to discipline and fire the officer if they ran afoul."
Among other steps, Pennington handed more authority to district commanders, and, in a move that irked the rank-and-file, barred police officers from working off-duty details in bars.
"Richard was one of the giants of our business in his day," said former NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas, who worked as Pennington's second-in-command for several years and describes his former boss as a mentor.
"We were able to decentralize a police department and make it closer to the community. That's the key: Break down those barriers, internal resistance," Serpas said. "It was a revolution in policing at the time, and New Orleans was a very stoic Police Department. They did not want those changes.
"New Orleans has always been broke, but he was able to get that done. Richard's story of success is based on his personal attributes, but also highly related to Marc (Morial)'s unyielding support while he was there."
According to a 2002 story in The Times-Picayune, Pennington was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the son of a railroad waiter and a barbershop and pool-hall owner. His family moved to Gary, Indiana, when he was in the eighth grade.
He joined the Air Force after high school and did a tour of duty in Vietnam, then settled on a career in law enforcement and rose quickly up the ranks of the Washington, D.C., Police Department.
Pennington was 47 when he moved south to head the New Orleans police force, where his legacy continues with the current superintendent, Michael Harrison.
Pennington was an early mentor, Harrison said, and the man who promoted him to sergeant.
Harrison recalled that some officers grumbled when Pennington, an outsider, was picked to lead the force.
“But you know what? The citizens of New Orleans really embraced him, and he became a New Orleanian and fell in love with our city and our culture,” Harrison said.
Many recall the Pennington era for the precipitous drop in major crimes that the city enjoyed during his term. Harrison also remembered his former boss' work cleaning up corruption, which he sees as a precursor to the reforms laid out in the 2012 federal consent decree that now guides the department.
“He brought a lot of innovation and best practices that perhaps always didn’t make it to New Orleans,” Harrison said. "He was a transformational leader ... an agent of change, and the community really, really loved him.”
Pennington's image as a quiet chief who stood above the fray didn't translate into the hurly-burly of local politics, however.
"I think he was really drafted to run for mayor. I don't think he had innate political aspirations," Morial said.
Malachi Hull, a former director of the New Orleans Taxicab Bureau and longtime friend of Pennington, said the chief was an effective law enforcement leader wherever he worked.
"He'd go out on the streets and talk to officers. He wasn't somebody who was aloof," said Hull, who worked with Pennington in Atlanta for a time. "Even if you were a friend and made a mistake, he'd hold you accountable. He was going to demand the best and also recognize you if you did well."
Although some observers in Atlanta blamed Pennington for declining morale among cops there, the crime rate in Georgia’s largest city dropped during his tenure.
George Turner, who succeeded Pennington as Atlanta’s chief, said he will be remembered there as a mentor to rising officers like himself.
Pennington was “quiet, professional and stern,” Turner said. But he also took an interest in the officers coming up through the ranks.
“One of the things that you look for ... is leaders that prepare others to take their place, and Richard gave me responsibilities that ultimately prepared me to do the job as police chief,” Turner said.
Funeral arrangements were not available Thursday.