Four years ago I became frustrated with the anti-violence group Silence is Violence because of their excessive patience with Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Warren Riley, two officials who were demonstrably incapable of reducing crime rates in New Orleans. Now, I’m again frustrated with Silence is Violence and their recent call for Mayor Landrieu to replace Chief Ronal Serpas. To explain my current feelings, let me review the context of my complaints in 2007.
After the Federal Flood destroyed and emptied so much of New Orleans in 2005, there was a dramatic drop in violent crime. Then, as the city began to repopulate in the spring of 2006, residents noticed an increase in violent crime. While intensifying anxieties about crime overlapped with the most important mayoral election in the city’s history, none of the mayoral candidates pressed the issue.
Nagin dismissed the “uptick” in murders as an untroubling result of more people moving back to the city. Chief Riley helpfully blamed “politicians” (and then the media) for stoking citizen fears, as his boss ran for re-election. Mayoral run-off candidate Mitch Landrieu missed a big opportunity when he didn’t forcefully connect his “Safe City” appeal to the rising crime issue. He would point it out in debates, but wrongly viewed himself as the frontrunner and didn’t use the issue against Nagin in the campaign.
On May 17, 2006, just days before the election, The Times-Picayune reported:
[Mayor Ray] Nagin believes that the city is on the right track in combating its historically high crime rate. [Mayoral Candidate Mitch] Landrieu expressed frustration that violence has been creeping back as the city repopulates.
Recently released first-quarter crime statistics show that, indeed, violent crime is again on the upswing after an unprecedented lull following the city’s mass evacuation and virtual military occupation on the heels of Katrina.
When asked about the return of murder and violence at Monday’s debate, Nagin downplayed the numbers and expressed confidence in several initiatives put in place by the police department in the past few months.
At the debate, Nagin indicated his plan [is] to attack the problem by maintaining his current game plan.
That plan starts with keeping Police Superintendent Warren Riley…
Nagin went on to win re-election, and a month later violent crime had become so bad in New Orleans that it was making national news. Some referred to a portion of Central City as “The Triangle of Death.” City Council members warned citizens that “Hurricane Crime” was approaching. The mayor asked the governor to send 300 National Guardsmen and 60 state troopers into New Orleans streets to help quell resurgent crime. The Times-Picayune said the worsening situation had been “obvious for months.”
Despite all the attention and the sudden influx of troopers and soldiers, crime rates did not improve in the second half of 2006. Chief Riley wasn’t fazed, though. He boasted that the NOPD’s crime-fighting strategies were “second to none.” Then, around New Year’s Day 2007, musician Dinerral Shavers and filmmaker Helen Hill were both murdered. Despite newspaper headlines that screamed “Killings bring the city to its bloodied knees,” the NOPD brass still minimized the rash of murders as being an unfortunate part of a national trend. The founders of Silence is Violence wouldn’t stand for it, and within six days they organized a crime march to City Hall that became one of the “largest and most diverse demonstration[s] of community solidarity in New Orleans history.” Citizens told Nagin and Riley that their lack of leadership was an insult to the city and that they should be ashamed of themselves. Riley’s attitude at that time was that
“The community finally woke up. We had a tragedy or two. The community should have in fact probably spoke (sic) up sooner.”
Unbelievable and intolerable, right?
That’s what I thought. But in the months following the march, the political momentum dissipated. Silence is Violence seemed to believe that more “dialogue” with an ineffectual Mayor and Police Chief was the appropriate response to an unacceptable situation. Before Nagin’s “State of the City” address in May 2007, Silence is Violence advised supporters to “let [Mayor Nagin] know that we are watching, listening, and waiting for him to speak more forcefully on the issue of violence in our city.”
At the time, I responded:
We are way, way, WAY past the point of needing Nagin to “know” that we are “waiting for him to speak more forcefully”. We are at the point now, I believe, when Nagin needs to know that he will be recalled if he doesn’t fire Warren Riley immediately. That might get his attention.
Expecting that this “State of the City” speech will mean something, that it will be full of specific promises that Nagin will fulfill is …pure folly.
Months later, in the fall of 2007, Silence is Violence co-founder Baty Landis was asked in an interview about Chief Riley. She replied:
I do have good communication with Warren Riley. It’s no secret that the NOPD is very deeply challenged right now. There are a lot of shortcomings in that department. However, I believe it is a department that wants to do better, is trying to do better, and that we can work with.
“Trying to do better?”
In the two years following those supportive statements, New Orleans suffered from the highest murder rate in the nation. At no time during that violent, murderous stretch did I hear about Silence is Violence petitioning Mayor Nagin to replace Chief Riley.
Fast forward to May 26, 2011. Silence is Violence echoed calls made earlier by Community United for Change, and circulated a petition saying Mayor Mitch Landrieu should fire NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas. SIV cited Serpas’ inability to “break the cycle of corruption,” his “criminalization” of victims, and his lack of a “clear strategy for addressing and collaborating with cultural traditions and practices.”
Now, I don’t mean to diminish the issues specified by SIV. All are important, and corruption is especially serious right now, in light of the police detail scandal and the Department of Justice’s investigations into the NOPD. Still, I have to wonder if SIV thought their petition made a strong enough case against Serpas. Surely they didn’t think Landrieu would dismiss Serpas based on these complaints after only one year on the job.
The police detail disclosures have caused city-wide disappointment with Serpas (and therefore Landrieu), but we’re still far away from city-wide outrage. SIV’s online petition has only about 230 signatures so far, coupled with another 300 or so on paper. Considering that it took SIV only 6 days to get 5,000 citizens to march out in the street, a petition that’s netted only 500 signatures in 10 days isn’t very impressive.
In a June 1 interview with WIST 690am’s Eric Asher, Landis spoke about how, given his past affiliations, Serpas “has to be perfect” in rooting out corruption. She talked about how Serpas needs a “closer ear to the tone” of the city, better communication “savvy,” and more proactive leadership and “productive engagement” with neighborhood partners.
Okay. But with all due respect, those aren’t the sorts of faults in a police chief that spur mass protests. Lord knows, New Orleans isn’t demanding perfection. You won’t find any Whodats sulking because the Saints lost the last three games of the 2009 regular season.
But that’s basically what frustrates me. After underplaying its hand for so long with the Nagin administration, SIV has quickly overplayed its hand with the Landrieu administration. Frankly, their petition comes off as premature, if not political – a throwback to the stink over the confidentiality of applications for the police chief job that led Landis to quit Landrieu’s selection committee.
SIV knows the conditions aren’t right to force Serpas to resign, yet they have begun clamoring for it anyway. They know that after just one year on the job, the mayor isn’t going to throw Serpas under the bus absent egregious violations. And lack of perfection isn’t one of them. Another big, ugly shoe needs to drop before the public goes from disenchanted to outraged at Serpas. But what will Silence is Violence do then? Unveil another petition?
Mayor Landrieu recently professed an “all hands on deck” strategy to reduce the murder rate, which neatly mirrors his “we’re all in it together/do everything at once” approach to fixing the city. In his State of the City speech he appointed former City Councilmember James Carter to be the Criminal Justice Commissioner, and promised a real crime summit this summer where shared ideas would eventuate in positive results.
So has SIV fatally shot itself in the foot? Not at all. The constructive role – the one with some chance of actual impact – would be to express profound displeasure with Serpas, and then make Mitch Landrieu hostage to his fate. Let the mayor know that the public views the police detail fiasco as “strike one” for Serpas, and that they won’t tolerate a “strike two” – whether its another scandal or a failure to get a grip on city crime by the end of the current year. Tell Landrieu that if he stands behind Serpas after that, then the Mayor himself will be held responsible come re-election time.
As for Serpas himself, he’s due to get a massive boost to his pension if he serves 3 more years with the NOPD, and a judgment about his role as chief should be made prior to his reaching this milestone.
Landrieu has a big chunk of political capital invested in Serpas – and knows it. From the controversy surrounding the selection process, to Serpas’ past history with the NOPD, to his being white in a city with less African-American leadership than in recent years. If Landrieu had won in a nail-biter instead of a landslide, it’s not likely Serpas would have been named chief in the first place.
Now is not the time for petitions demanding Serpas’ head. It’s time for an ultimatum that will be taken seriously at City Hall, one that uses Landrieu’s own rhetoric to paint him into a corner: Mr. Mayor, you have one last chance to get this right. We can’t support you further if you let the chief repeatedly fail to make the city safer, as you promised.