The Mayor’s Unfinished “Portrait”
Sketching a view of history
JOSEPH DANIEL FIEDLER ILLUSTRATION
Mayor Mitch Landrieu is said to favor Gallier Hall for special occasions. The latest is the ceremonial signing of police reforms recommended by the mayor’s task force on sexual violence. The mayor hasn’t arrived yet, so let’s take some time to look around.
Built in 1850, Gallier Hall (543 St. Charles Ave.) is the white marble Greek Revival building facing Lafayette Square. Formerly City Hall, it stands three-stories high including the basement that, like the front steps, was made of granite.
The WPA Guide to New Orleans (1938) tells us among the notables who lay in state at Gallier Hall “before being carried to their final resting place” were: the defeated president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, Confederate General P.G.T Beauregard and David Hennessy, who at age 31 became the first chief of the organized NOPD; he was assassinated in 1891.
Ever since then, the NOPD has been characterized by a cyclical history of scandal and mayhem, punctuated by episodes of reform.
Mayor Landrieu is the latest mayor to promise reduced crime and a law-abiding police force.
In the hallway, a federal court-appointed monitor of the NOPD Consent Decree reform plan browses large portraits of the city’s modern mayors. Each has a history with the NOPD.
Facing the red room that Mitch Landrieu will soon enter is a portrait of the mayor’s father, Mayor “Moon” Landrieu. His racially progressive politics notwithstanding, a 1970 survey by the Regional Planning Commission found police harassment as the top priority of black voters. The elder Landrieu presided over an NOPD that rousted the Black Panther Party under Chief Joseph I. Giarrusso. Under brother Chief Clarence Giarrusso in ’73, the NOPD shot and killed a self-styled black militant sniper atop the Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodge. The gun battle paralyzed downtown, exposed deficiencies in police tactics and training and left 10 people dead – including five NOPD officers and the gunman.
Mayor Dutch Morial, the city’s first black elected mayor, also lay in state at Gallier Hall. He famously broke the 1979 police strike that cancelled Mardi Gras parades. Morial later appointed Warren Woodfork as the city’s first black police chief. Under Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, Woodfork is remembered for failing to discipline any officers in connection with the police killing of accused cop-killer Adolph Archie in ’90.
There is a portrait of Dutch’s mayoral son, Marc Morial. In October 1994, Marc Morial swore in Richard Pennington as top cop here at Gallier Hall. Pennington enjoyed unprecedented resources and support from the pubic, the business community and the feds. His job: To stop the violence and clean up the NOPD. In his years as chief, “600 police officers were arrested, fired disciplined or resigned under investigation,” Marc Morial later wrote. Dozens of cops went to prison; two remain on Death Row today. Pennington famously kept his vow to cut the city’s murder rate in half. The hard-won reforms of the Pennington era began to unravel before the chief left office in 2002.
It is easy to miss the official city portrait of former Mayor Ray Nagin, who’s presently serving a 10-year federal prison term for a corruption conviction. Nagin’s image hangs alone on an opposite wall, largely obscured from view by a door that opens into the hallway. Under Nagin’s two police chiefs, crime rebounded and police discipline collapsed. The feds returned en masse. The prosecutions of the Danziger Bridge cops and other misconduct cases of the Katrina Era followed.
In 2010, Mayor Landrieu appointed Pennington protégé Ronal Serpas as his “reform” Chief.
In 2011, Landrieu and Serpas hosted top U.S. Department of Justice officials at Gallier Hall for the feds’ release of a damning report. Among the findings: “We find the NOPD has systematically misclassified large numbers of possible sexual assaults, resulting in a sweeping failure to properly investigate many potential cases of rape, attempted rape and other crimes. NOPD has recently acknowledged its serious deficits in responding to sex crimes and has taken some significant remedial steps. NOPD and the City will need to build on these efforts to bring about some of the extensive and sustained change necessary to effectively and appropriately respond to these serious violent crimes.”
In 2012, the Landrieu Administration and the DOJ entered into the Consent Decree to reform NOPD.
Serpas retired in 2014 amid mixed reviews – without attaining the superstar status Landrieu promised.
In a little-noticed 2012 interview published last year by the Police Executive Research Forum, a national police group, Serpas said the NOPD he found in 2010 was in far worse shape than the department he helped Pennington to reform in the 1990s. “In each era, we were up against significant problems. But the problems back then were not nearly as endemic as they are in this 2010 era. In the 1990s, we had a handful of officers in the department who just ran amok,” Serpas said, naming as examples convicted killer-cops Antoinette Frank and Len Davis and bank robber Michael Thames. “But these people were lone wolves. In 2010, we had much more systemic problems to deal with.”
“We had people purposefully creating conspiracies and engaging others up the chain of command to cover up the [Henry] Glover and Danziger killings. How does that change so fast? It was only in 2004 that the Justice Department had finally closed the file on its 1994 investigation and given the department its OK. And then in 2005 Katrina hit and we had these murders and conspiracies and cover-ups.”
Serpas admitted he did a poor scouting job before taking the helm of the NOPD: “I didn’t know how badly the discipline system had fallen apart, the policy and procedures system, the training systems, promotional practices – every system that you need to hold a police department together had completely disintegrated,” he said. “The DOJ report recognized this – that every system that you would expect to see in a well-running police department had completely come off the tracks.”
Unable to right the ship, Serpas passed the torch to current Chief Michael Harrison, a former lieutenant who has yet to suffer from high public expectations. Chief Harrison now enters the red room of Gallier Hall with Mayor Landrieu. They are greeted with applause from Task Force Chair Tania Tetlow, among others. Unlike other second-term mayors, Landrieu still appears energetic and focused on the task of murder reduction and police reform. The mayor’s work with NOPD remains an unfinished “portrait.”