Polling the Police
What the numbers say
JOSEPH DANIEL FIEDLER ILLUSTRATION
The announced results of a 100-question poll of New Orleans Police Department officers trigger memories of previous surveys of the NOPD, from sophisticated “focus groups” to an informal “show of hands.” Police are a cynical lot. Police polls can be an invitation to predictable and unexpected responses, depending on the questions.
In 1996, for example, Police Chief Richard Pennington asked 1,300 NOPD officers to complete “Superintendent’s Survey No. 1,” a mail-back questionnaire. A total of 990 officers (76.2 percent) responded.
Among other things, Pennington asked officers to prioritize their work based on what was important to them. Their responses were grouped as follows: 1. “Apprehend perpetrators”, 2. “Arrest drug dealers”, 3. “Protect and serve the public”, 4. “Reduce crime, fear and disorder” and 5. “Make gun arrests”.
Pennington said the officers’ perception of what the NOPD expected of them was quite different. They ranked the NOPD’s priorities as follows: 1. “Respond to complaints”, 2. “Stay out of trouble”, 3. “Report police corruption”, 4. “Don’t embarrass the brass” and 5. “Protect tourists.”
Pennington used the poll to reorganize and restructure the NOPD and to develop a strategic plan to fulfill an incredible promise: To cut the city’s murder rate in half within three years. Pennington appointed Ronal Serpas as Assistant Superintendent, the No. 2 position in the department. He was tasked with implementing an ultimately successful blueprint for reducing violent crime in New Orleans: the “Pennington Plan.”
Today, nearly 20 years later, the results of another anonymous poll of NOPD officers are published for public review. Once again, the larger goal is the safety of a crime-weary public and the reform of a troubled force.
A federal court-supervised consent decree between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice has resulted in the parties, the NOPD and a judge-appointed “monitoring team” crafting a three-part poll of the public, police and detained suspects at Orleans Parish Prison. The police portion was published first.
Susan Howell, a locally renowned political scientist and retired founder of the University of New Orleans Survey Research Center, interpreted the results of the police poll for this magazine during an extended visit. (She and her husband John Vinturella, a 9th Ward native, reside in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio.) While at UNO, Professor Howell led a “recruitment and retention survey” of the NOPD for nonprofit New Orleans Police Foundation in 2004.
“Police are normally a suspicious group,” Howell says, referring to the dozens of NOPD officers surveyed who omitted their race, rank, age and gender from the Consent Decree poll, despite the court monitoring team’s assurances of anonymity.
Administered at police roll calls in April 2014, the biennial police survey will serve as a “baseline” for the next survey, April ’16. The two-year poll is sufficient time for measuring cultural changes in the NOPD, including the officers’ “beliefs and perceptions,” Howell says.
“The theme of this poll was positive relations between police officers and their supervisors, and a 50/50 relationship with the citizens,” she says, adding that 84 percent of the more than 400 officers surveyed “personally believe they have power over the way NOPD is perceived.”
Overall, the professor says, she found “big positives” and “large negatives” in the survey.
“The big positive is the officers are very positive about their fellow officers and their supervisors,” she says. The majority of officers believe their district or division commanders administered discipline fairly and are respectful – regardless of race, gender, ethnicity and/or sexual orientation.
“However, this respect for supervisors definitely did not extend to Ronal Serpas,” Howell says of Chief Pennington’s protégé and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s former police chief.
NOPD officers surveyed, including Superintendent Serpas and his command staff, were asked to respond to the statement: “The current Superintendent of Police is leading us in the right direction.”
Fifty percent “strongly” disagreed and 24.5 percent disagreed “somewhat,” for a total negative rating of 74.6 percent. Only 13.6 percent of the officers agreed with the chief’s direction and only 5.6 percent “strongly” endorsed Serpas’ leadership, for a total positive rating of 19.1 percent. The remaining officers (6 percent) didn’t respond (U.S. v. City of New Orleans, 2:12-1924, Doc. 400-1). Serpas, 54, retired Aug. 18, 2014.
“There were two large negatives in the survey,” Howell continues. “First, police dissatisfaction with citizen complaints.”
The poll showed 77 percent of the officers surveyed agreed with the statement “Most civilian complaints against officers are frivolous.”
Three-quarters of the cops surveyed worried they could be punished for, in the survey’s words, “an honest mistake.”
“Most officers don’t believe Public Integrity Bureau investigators are fair,” Howell says.
Other findings according to Howell:
• “Three-quarters believe they don’t have quality equipment and this affects their ability to do their job.”
• “Eighty percent said they rarely get rewarded for doing a good job, but ‘reward’ doesn’t necessarily mean more money.”
• More than half would not be satisfied with the police service if they lived in their own district, an apparent reference to the shortage of officers.”
• The poll asked NOPD officers a number of questions about bias, Howell says. “It looks like most officers believe their superiors are not biased based on gender or race. The bias is based on who you know. Two-thirds says getting a good assignment is based on who you know.”
Howell said the “breadth” of the 100-question survey is commendable. “There’s a lot of improvement to be made here,” she says of the NOPD.
It will be a bleaker reform era without retired Capt. Craig Jennings, 66, who died Jan. 26. (Jennings retired from the NOPD in 2007 with 39 years of service.)
A highly decorated commander, Capt. Jennings was, for years, one of the few NOPD officers that the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice trusted with ongoing investigations of corrupt police officers and public officials, sources say.
He possessed a patrolman’s cynicism and a dry, rapier wit, which he often aimed at political sycophants and other contemptible elements on the NOPD – especially those of equal rank or higher.
Some years ago, NOPD’s white-shirted commanders were ordered to a special meeting on the fifth floor of NOPD headquarters, 715 South Broad St. The top brass informally polled the captains for fresh ideas to lift police morale without raising pay.
With characteristic sarcasm and a poker face, Jennings recommended “the immediate installation of Prozac dispensers at all eight district stations.”
The top brass in the room was livid, he acknowledged. They saw no humor in jokes about the distribution of anti-depressants to police. Patrol officers and detectives at headquarters roared with laughter. The captain’s quip spread to the streets, boosting morale for at least one eight-hour shift – ironically, without any increase in police pay.