The prodigal policeman has returned home as Police Chief, still brandishing his “gospel” of data-driven crime control and police accountability – and quoting New Orleans jazz great Louis Armstrong.

Ronal W. Serpas, Ph.D., a third-generation veteran of the New Orleans Police Department, took the oath of office May 11 as the new superintendent of the troubled New Orleans Police Department.

“Mister Mayor … in the words of ‘Satchmo,’ ‘I know what it means to miss New Orleans!’” Serpas told Mayor Mitch Landrieu, during ceremonies at Gallier Hall.

The return of Serpas marks the end of a nearly nine-year hegira from the NOPD. He left the force in 2001 when he was then-Assistant Superintendent to Chief Richard Pennington, who helped to implement a policing strategy credited with cutting the city’s nation-leading murder rate – by more than half.

Murders in New Orleans dropped from a record 424 killings in 1994 to 162 murders in ’99 – a feat unmatched since then.

Reported drops in other crimes defied credulity, inviting investigative scrutiny that has dogged both Serpas and “CompStat” – the statistics-driven crimefighting and police accountability method pioneered by the New York City Police Department.

Serpas left his New Orleans skeptics behind in August 2001 to serve as chief of the Washington State Patrol until ’03 and the Nashville Metropolitan Police Department from ’04 until May of ’10.

Newly elected Mayor Landrieu announced on May 6 that Serpas would return as chief, after dealing with heavy flooding in Nashville.

“He has a strong record of delivering results and reducing crime,” Landrieu said of Serpas, noting that violent crime in Nashville has fallen each year since he took office in 2004; the ’09 violent crime rate in the (other) “Music City” dropped to its lowest rate since 1985.

“Making our city safe is my top priority, and I am going to work shoulder-to-shoulder with Chief Serpas to get it done,” Landrieu said.

As superintendent of NOPD, Serpas has begun yet another attempt at reforming a force that still leads the nation in murders per capita.

“Our first priority, every day, will be to relentlessly, legally and professionally pursue those who would do violence,” Serpas said, during the May 11 swearing-in ceremonies at Gallier Hall.

Yes, the new chief did say “legally.”

His promise of a safer city also recognizes a need to restore public confidence in the NOPD.

As expected, Serpas’ inaugural address promised stronger ties with the U.S. Department of Justice, amid the ongoing federal prosecutions of the police killings at Danziger Bridge and another seven misconduct probes. His boss, Mayor Landrieu, earlier secured pledges of governmental assistance from the feds to transform NOPD’s “patterns and practices.”

To that end, Serpas also pledged that NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau will “reflect and respect” the office of the Inspector General and its Independent Police Monitor. That is a welcome change from the cynical disinterest displayed by former Chief Warren Riley toward the fledgling watchdog groups.

Serpas also promised “courteous and professional” relations between NOPD and other entities of the criminal justice system, notably the District Attorney’s office. The city suffered the price of discord between the DA and the NOPD after Hurricane Katrina, so Serpas’ pledge to build on the improved relationships he inherited from predecessor Riley bears watching.

Of course, the centerpiece of the Serpas Era is – “community first.” His community policing strategy offers “individualized police service” that is “tailored” to “prioritized problem-solving” in the city’s diverse neighborhoods.

Serpas pledges to restore public confidence in the force by instilling “three basic principles” in daily policing: accountability, transparency and collaboration.

He says he expects police service based on “truthfulness and ethical behavior.”

“There will be no tolerance for deviation,” he says. “Professional treatment of our citizens [is required] in every encounter, be it a call for service, a warrant to be served, an arrest to be made or a vehicle stop to be conducted.”

Serpas still preaches the police gospel of CompStat, but a “New Testament” version emphasizing “quality” apprehensions over mass arrests, outside audits over internal secrecy and public participation above all.

He immediately opened weekly participation in CompStat meetings in the eight districts and department-wide sessions at the Municipal Training Academy. “It’s just plain right to include any and all who want to witness the tremendous effort, dedication and focus of our leadership teams and the officers and staffs they represent as they work to make our city safe,” Serpas said.

Serpas also pledged to call for:
•An “immediate audit” of NOPD crime reporting mechanisms by the state and the feds;

•“An immediate partnership with educational institutions to evaluate” computer systems that capture NOPD crime data;

•Re-training of officers and their supervisors in the proper preparation of police investigative reports and crime classifications;

•The creation of a monthly audit system at NOPD.

“We will open for public inspection and regular review our crime reporting systems and data by external parties,” Serpas said. All this transparency of the CompStat process raises two fundamental questions Serpas may want to publicly address: 1) What happens to police accountability when the CompStat computers fail or the power goes out? We have already seen the unhappy consequences of police – and their commanders – missing in action in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. 2) If public participation at CompStat is such a good idea today – why wasn’t it a good idea when Chief Serpas was No. 2 at NOPD in the late 1990s?

A 1998 probe of the Pennington Administration by the city Office of Municipal Investigation (OMI#97-046A-97) found insufficient evidence to support allegations of a “concerted effort” by police to decrease overall crime rates by misclassifying crimes.

OMI recommended nine “corrective actions” to improve NOPD CompStat, which were never seriously considered. At the time the report was released, both Pennington and Serpas became the subjects of a separate OMI probe that centered on the alleged misuse of NOPD cell phones (OMI#97-046B-04). The allegations were never proven – or disproven.   

Then-Mayor Marc Morial’s Chief Administrative Officer Marlin Gusman bluntly denounced the OMI probe as “bullshit.” Gusman refused to forward the investigative findings to the state ethics board. Expressing fears for their jobs, the top OMI investigators of the case filed for whistle blower protection with the city civil service commission.

Ironically, perhaps, some of the corrective actions they recommended 12 years ago – such as “regular audits” and NOPD collaboration with outside university experts – are greeted as innovations by Chief Serpas. Meanwhile, district commanders have begun appearing on televised news reports of homicide scenes, a Serpas surprise, suggesting that top cops will be directly accountable to the public for the worst crimes in New Orleans neighborhoods.

If Serpas can slash violent crime and establish a foundation for police reform that both cops and the public will want to build upon, he may indeed become the “great” chief that Mayor Landrieu promised.

Or the Serpas era will be remembered as just another failed attempt at reforming a much-maligned police department, which has never truly known a “Golden Age.”