The Chief: A Year Later
NOPD’S Ronal Serpas faces public scrutiny
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration began with pep and promise. “The guiding principle for the effort is pretty simple: one team, one fight, one voice, one city,” the son of former Mayor Moon Landrieu said before taking office May 3, 2010.
The mayor whom most locals call “Mitch” promised a “new era of peace and prosperity in New Orleans” and then (reaching for the stars), “a great police chief.”
One year later, however, violent crime remains stubbornly high, and police misconduct probes intensify with fresh scandal in Landrieu’s reform administration. His police chief, Ronal Serpas, is at the center of a political firestorm over off-duty “paid details” worked by cops at the New Orleans Police Department.
In fact, future historians inspecting Landrieu political ephemera may come across a leaflet that reads: “Fire Ronal Serpas!” That leaflet was distributed May 13, 2010 at Gallier Hall – 10 days after Landrieu’s own inauguration – by activists opposed to the appointment of a chief with any ties to the troubled force.
On February 6, 2010, Landrieu was easily elected mayor in the first primary of his third campaign for the city’s highest elective office. Politicos call him “Landslide” Landrieu. NOPD cops who knew his father dubbed the new mayor “Half-Moon.”
The city was crackling with Carnival revelers, Super Bowl “Who Dats” and FBI agents investigating the troubled NOPD.
On March 11, 2010, the mayor-elect hosted a forum at a Superdome meeting room. He had launched a nationwide search for a new chief and wanted his 21-member NOPD task force to hear from the public on what kind of qualities the city needed in new superintendent.
Afterwards, Landrieu stayed late, mulling his options with activists and ex-cops alike. He dismissed a columnist’s suggestion that the city ask the U.S. Department of Justice to help craft a plan for reforming the NOPD, with federal court oversight.
“What good would that do?” the mayor-elect said tersely. The reply is that cities like Pittsburgh and Los Angeles have federal consent decrees to help their troubled police departments with court-supervision. Landrieu appeared unconvinced.
Less than 60 days later, he announced he had invited the DOJ to intervene in the reform of NOPD. He added he has been meeting with the feds “for months” on how to transform the city.
Meanwhile, Landrieu’s task force on criminal justice offered a sobering report, noting 25 murders in March 2010 alone: “Despite being a national per capita leader in arrests, law enforcement officers, incarceration and city budget percentage funding, New Orleans has failed to become a national leader in public safety outcomes.”
Panel reform recommendations included a review of NOPD’s “private security detail policies.”
On April 28, 2010, the week before the new mayor took office, French Quarter blogger Thom Kahler accurately predicted that Ronal Serpas would be Landrieu’s choice as chief: “Serpas and current 8th District commander Maj.
Edwin Hosli are long-time best friends. They were ‘best man’ at each other’s weddings and continue to stay in close contact. If Serpas becomes chief, you could expect to see a significant promotion for Hosli, say as deputy chief in charge of the Public Integrity Bureau.” The writer missed the mark on Hosli’s future.
On May 3, 2010, Landrieu was sworn in as the city’s 61st mayor. He immediately appointed NOPD Assistant Superintendent Marlon Defillo as Interim Chief.
On May 4, 2010, 24 activist groups – including Mardi Gras Indian tribes – signed a letter to the DOJ asking the feds to intervene in the reform of the NOPD. The next day, Landrieu asked the U.S. Attorney General to assign a team of lawyers to help transform the NOPD. “I have inherited a police force that has been described by many as one of the worst police departments in the country,” Landrieu wrote.
On May 6, 2010, Landrieu tapped Nashville Chief Serpas as his top cop, who advocates “zero tolerance” for police misconduct. Serpas was “highly recommended” by former NOPD Chief Richard Pennington, who succeeded in helping cut the city’s nation-leading murder rate in half by 1999. Serpas was his No. 2 then.
After 100 days as mayor, Landrieu told WWL-TV, “We have a great police chief.”
In April 2011, Mayor Landrieu suspended the director of Public Works and Commander Hosli pending investigation of a paid detail scandal – an extraordinary reach into the NOPD for a modern mayor. Serpas told WDSU-TV he had no knowledge that three officers – his son-in-law, his police driver and Hosli – were all earning big bucks by engaging in the ethically questionable review of traffic camera tickets for a private company run by Hosli and his wife.
On May 15, 2011, following a federal report that called paid details the “aorta of corruption” at NOPD, Serpas proposed a reform plan that will limit policemen’s workweek to 76 hours – including 36 hours for paid details. That far exceeded Pennington’s detail cap of 24 hours.
What is needed is a long-term plan to improve police pay, police performance and public safety – by phasing out paid-detail practices that turn cops into dangerously overworked hustlers and the city into balkanized security districts.
The perils of paid details have been largely ignored by NOPD and City Hall for years.
In 1981, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which brought Serpas back to New Orleans, warned NOPD of potential conflicts of interests, injuries, officer fatigue, and “liability problems” if “secondary employment” isn’t “rigidly controlled.”
A 1994, a Louisiana National Guard study of NOPD estimated the demoralized force was operating at only 33 percent effectiveness and “defensively policing in order to protect paid details at the expense of performing proactive, full-time policing.”
The NOPD of 2011 isn’t much better, but there’s still time to build the safe and prosperous city Landrieu envisions. However, the public must be convinced the city has a truly “great police chief.”