Nothing changes one’s thinking about life like the sudden and avoidable death of a young innocent.

Shortly before Mardi Gras, television news stations aired pictures of 19-year-old Hayley Howard. She smiled brightly toward a future she would never live to see.

Howard, a University of New Orleans student and resident of Slidell who had recently been accepted to the Xavier University College of Pharmacy, was reported missing after she failed to arrive at a Northshore party in the wee hours of the Carnival weekend.  

On Ash Wednesday, New Orleans Police Department officers and St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s deputies watched solemnly as a water-logged car containing the body of the teenager was pulled from Irish Bayou near the Interstate 10 Twin Spans. Hayley’s father thanked scores of volunteers who helped authorities search for his daughter, hours before the four-day search ended in tragic discovery.

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas appeared on the scene. A preliminary investigation indicated Howard was driving her silver Toyota Corolla on Interstate 10 East toward Slidell, when she veered off the road to the right. The car then sank into Irish Bayou.

The detailed press release included a heart-felt statement from the chief. “It’s always devastating when such a young life is lost,” Serpas said. “I have three children myself, and I can’t imagine what Ms. Howard’s parents are going through. I assured them that this department is here to assist them in any way they may need.”

Serpas’ response to an otherwise routine accident tells us a few things about the chief, the department and our city.

First, the NOPD has apparently learned some painful lessons from the eerily similar case of Terrilynn Monette, 26, a popular black schoolteacher who disappeared after leaving a Lakeview bar in the early morning hours of March 2, 2013 – almost one year to the day before young Howard went missing.

A Slidell police diver found Monette’s body inside her car at the bottom of Bayou St. John, after a massive three-month search. An autopsy showed little alcohol in the remains of the teacher, who, according to one theory, may have fallen asleep at the wheel and driven unobstructed into Bayou St. John, across Wisner Boulevard from the City Park golf course.

Investigative miscues hampered the search and tarnished the unprecedented community support the NOPD gained during the early weeks of the Monette case. For a time, older white police veterans and NOPD retirees who volunteered time for the search seemed (pleasantly) surprised to see young black males with dreadlocks wearing T-shirts urging anyone with information about the teacher to call the Missing Persons division of the NOPD.

If you were standing on the banks of Bayou St. John last summer when Monette’s black Honda Accord was pulled from Bayou St. John, you probably remembered volunteer police diver Mark Michaud telling reporters: “I just wanted to bring some peace to the family.” He then threaded his way through the crowd to find Toni Enclade, Monette’s mother. Enclade publicly thanked the scores of volunteers who helped search for her daughter – just as Hayley Howard’s father would do.

The two cases represent more than a “tale of a two cities” (one black, one white.) Alcohol played at least some role in both deaths.

The tragedies also reminded reporters of Chief Serpas’ unique fury for impaired and drunk driving in the alcohol-friendly culture of New Orleans.

In a 2010 interview with Gambit, Serpas said: “One of the problems I’ve always had with the media is creating the image of murder as the crime you should be afraid of … A drunk driver should have you shaking in your boots because that’s the stranger you never laid eyes on who will annihilate your family.”

No other NOPD superintendent in the last 40 years has demonstrated such a persistent passion for DWI traffic enforcement. Since becoming chief in 2010, Serpas has often proselytized on the life-saving potential of sobriety checkpoints. In a metro area, famous for drive-thru daiquiris, Serpas gets polite applause, if that.

Remember, Mayor Mitch Landrieu hired Serpas to do two things: bring down the murder rate and to reform the NOPD.

The Chief’s quest for safer streets via DWI arrests may have been further stymied by a diversion of police manpower to major sports events and festivals.

In early 2013, Serpas filed a report to City Hall, saying demands on the NOPD to provide security for “special events” adversely affected DWI patrols trying to achieve monthly arrest quotas.

Police staffing for “special events” also hampered the ability of detectives to solve murders, rapes and robberies and other felonies, Serpas said. In addition, the reassignment of police to special events also delayed 40 hours of annual “in-service training” for hundreds of police officers.

Serpas said the NOPD still managed to record increases in arrest rates for violent crimes during the same period. DWI arrests rebounded to double-digit figures by mid-2013.

In 2012, the re-assignment of traffic cops to major events – including the BCS National Championship, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the NCAA Final Four basketball championship – resulted in the NOPD recording just over 1,500 DWI arrests for the year, or 200 fewer busts than the chief desired. “DWI arrests were slightly less than anticipated due in part to manpower needs tied to the series of special events hosted by the city,” Serpas reported.

Unnecessary delays in much-needed training for NOPD officers (including DWI traffic cops) could put the city at odds with a federal court plan for reforming the NOPD. Constitutional police traffic stops by the NOPD are a major concern of the U.S. Department of Justice – whether booze is involved or not.

“NOPD has a lot of work ahead of it,” according to a recent report by the Office of the Consent Decree Monitor.

Violent crime and police reform remain Serpas’ top priorities. Getting drunk and impaired drivers off the road is another way to save innocent lives. The chief’s effort deserves more consideration than he has received to date.

In lieu of flowers, the Howard family asks anyone please send all donations to Xavier University College of Pharmacy. Post Office Box 56308, New Orleans, La. 70156-9901.