The late New Orleans Police Department Major (ret.) Howard P. Robertson, has been eulogized in The Times-Picayune as the police commander who “revolutionized” the department’s SWAT team in the early 1990s with “better training, equipment and tactics.”
Robertson was serving as Chief Investigator of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office when he died April 3, 2014, at his Metairie home from liver cancer. He was 64.
“If you’re not going to have the Howard Robertsons of the world in charge – you need to have them in the room,” says civil rights attorney Mary Howell, recalling Robertson’s candor, confidence and intelligence. “Howard was a truth-teller. He was a teacher who never stopped teaching. He read and read critically.”
Twenty years ago, Robertson was commander of the 30 officers on the NOPD SWAT team.
A 6-foot-4-inch-tall bodybuilder, Robertson’s chiseled physique, infectious confidence, blunt candor and flashes of temper all helped to earn him the police nickname: “Conan the Barbarian.”
His “Conan” persona belied a restless intellect and, his widow Gay Robertson says, a “terrible stutter” that he conquered by taking speech courses as a young police officer at Loyola University.
In a 1994 interview, Major Robertson suggested replacing NOPD’s traditional style of “aggressive policing” with a “customer-oriented” approach that extends to criminal suspects.
“There are two basic approaches any officer can use,” Robertson said, turning theatrical: “Hey asshole, get over here! Put your hands on the car!’ And you throw him up against the car. Or, number two: Excuse me, sir. We’re out here checking guns in the area. And you fit the description of someone we’re looking for. This will only take five minutes.’ And if he’s clean you say, ‘I want to thank you for your cooperation.’”
Robertson also became an outspoken advocate of alternatives to police deadly force, at a dangerous time.
In the summer of 1994, New Orleans was frightening place to live. The city led the nation in both murders and civil rights complaints to the FBI. The city was on pace for its deadliest year ever: 424 homicides. Roughly one out of every four of those murders took place in the Desire, Florida and B.W. Cooper housing projects, where violent drug dealers fought for control of the city’s lucrative cocaine trade – aided by corrupt and brutal cops such as highly decorated NOPD officer Len Davis.
In June of that year, Davis began paying NOPD officers to work 12-hour shifts protecting a warehouse filled with cocaine – unaware the facility was part of an FBI undercover operation targeting police corruption.
Meanwhile, newly elected Mayor Marc Morial and a new city council were absorbing public reaction to a management study by the Louisiana Army National Guard.
The study concluded the NOPD was “very dysfunctional” and warned of the “expensive” consequences of poor police leadership for future taxpayers if police reform efforts failed.
“There is very little pride within the NOPD about what the department does or how it does it,” said the author of the report, Army Col. (ret.) Mickey S. Evans.
He said the local news media should “be on the lookout for police officers doing the right things right [and] … report it.”
Weeks later, photojournalist A.J. Sisco and I broke the story of how Robertson and the NOPD SWAT team resolved 99 percent of 342 life-threatening incidents over a 10-year period – without resorting to deadly force (Gambit, “Silver Lining in a Blue Cloud,” July 26, 1994).
Building on a streak of 200 non-fatal SWAT rolls inherited in 1991 from Major Felix Loicano, Robertson’s SWAT team became a bright light during a dark period for the NOPD.
The special local unit also excelled as FBI SWAT teams reeled. Disastrous standoffs claimed the lives of both federal agents and civilians at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992 and Waco, Texas in ’93, which ended in the fiery deaths of 76 men, women and children. “Waco never would have happened if Howard was in charge,” local lawyer Mary Howell says today.
In July 1994, Robertson said things about his NOPD SWAT team that many New Orleanians have not heard any NOPD officer say. Some examples:
• “Any time we use our weapons, we feel like we fail.”
• “I don’t want them to hurt that person if I can help it.”
• “The Golden Rule around here is to treat somebody like you want your family treated.”
• “Our job is to get everybody out alive – including the suspect.”
In 1994, not everybody on the NOPD felt that way; the department didn’t tout the SWAT team’s success and many on the force favored an aggressive, quick, forceful assertion of police control in any crisis. Colonel Evans said then: “SWAT seems to be a success story on the department that isn’t highly valued in the NOPD and certainly not celebrated, and that’s sad.”
Twenty years later, Evans remembered Major Robertson: “He was a ‘no excuses,’ no-nonsense kind of guy. He was a true professional law enforcement officer – not a cop. He was an officer. An officer is about leadership, management and caring about people that are working with you and for you and loving them and their families.”
Evans also called his one-year study of the NOPD “a waste of time.”
“Howard had a dream of being Chief,” says Peter Scharf, a criminology professor who supervised Robertson’s work as a part-time instructor at the University of New Orleans (1994-2007), teaching supervisors from other police departments how to develop strategic management plans.
“His career interacted with the worst times at the NOPD.”
Robertson had one foot in both the ‘new school’ and the ‘old school’ of the NOPD: “The Old School NOPD was characterized by loyalty to power, adherence to the code of silence and vindictiveness. He knew that world and tried to insulate himself from it.” He shunned paid details, for example.
The New School was “transparent and more meritocratic,” Scharf says. “He was very proud of the fact that SWAT never killed anybody – that was very new school. He was old school in the sense that he waited his turn for promotion. He wasn’t a whistle-blower. He wasn’t part enough of the old school to really get into the leadership.”
Instead, he formed study groups for officers taking promotional exams. “A lot of people became sergeants because Howard was there,” Scharf says.
On October 13, 1994, Richard Pennington became chief. An ugly scrum for power ensued among the command staff.
The same straightforward approach that served Robertson as a SWAT commander left him under water in the treacherous political currents at police headquarters.
“He was never regarded as part of the Pennington-Serpas team.”
Yet Robertson took the “high road” in a 1996 interview about Pennington’s top brass, including then-majors Ronal Serpas and Ray Burkart.
“Everybody on the command staff wants to be a team member,” Robertson said. “Everybody wants to be successful. None of us want to see this department fail. None of us want to retire (being) known as a member of the most corrupt police department in the United States. All of us want to walk away saying we made a difference, that we made a change.”
Two months later, Serpas became the No. 2 commander at NOPD; Robertson retired in 1999.
Harry Mendoza, a police protégé of Robertson, says his NOPD legacy will be his teaching at the police academy. “His heart was there,” he said. “Howard was really a teacher. He left his mark on his students and I’m one of them.”
On April 9 Robertson’s memorial service was held at the Metairie church where he married his wife and they christened their son, Paul. An NOPD honor guard flanked the major’s police portrait.
To prepare for the end, Major Robertson wrote “six bullet points” for his own obituary, Gay Robertson said.
“I want a couple of columns four to six inches long,” he wrote. He referenced previous articles on his public service in CityBusiness, Gambit and New Orleans Magazine.
Robertson’s list ends with two points for his memorial service: “He said he always felt each job was to help serve people” and “He gave back by teaching others.”