Criminal Justice

“Credibility” is not just a BS political hurdle

In the wake of the most disturbing police coverup conspiracy I’ve ever seen, I questioned whether a local candidate for our next police superintendent, a veteran of this broken NOPD, would be considered a credible leader for the force.

Commenter jeffrey responded to the post:

Do we want a police department that works in the sense that it enforces the law without violating the privacy or dignity of the citizenry? Or do we want one that has “credibility to lead” and that “people trust”? If our goal is to run a competent police department, then obviously there is no reason to exclude competent people from within the ranks. But if our goal is to make a silly political point about “leadership” then maybe part of that point will be, “nobody who has been here their whole lives knows how to do anything right” It’s a popular mantra.

The point is not, as Jeffrey suggests, to make a political stand at the expense of NOPD officers and administrators who do an excellent job and who follow the rules. Perhaps the phrase “credibility to lead” sounds like an inauthentic and vague way to say what I really mean.

I don’t think it took Lt. Michael Loman’s guilty plea to demonstrate it, but clearly, the NOPD has systemic problems.

I do not accept the commonplace excuse that there are a few bad apples when one of our officers is arrested for abetting the drug trade, assault, or rape.

I’m not suggesting that every officer is now under some sort of personal suspicion. I am saying that the department has serious structural flaws that consistently let unqualified candidates or downright bad people be hired and promoted.

Our local police department has been beset by corruption and brutality complaints for decades. It isn’t just that New Orleans has an overwhelming amount violent crime, it’s that our main enforcement agency does not operate with the confidence of the public.

The faith of the public is not just a public-relations luxury; it is critical to fighting crime.

It isn’t just about whether or not an individual has credibility with the public or credibility within the police force as if “credibility” is simply a media construct that will determine whether a hire is viewed favorably or unfavorably. “Credibility” refers to the degree to which citizens trust that the man or woman hired for the job has enough distance from the systemic problems that have eroded that trust in the first place.

You might say that the proof will be in the pudding, that whatever reservations one might have about promoting a high-ranking NOPD official to the role of superintendent will be quickly put to rest once reforms are put into place.

I’m just not willing to take that leap of faith.

I want radical change at this police department that can last. I don’t think you can do that by promoting someone who was trained to implement a failing system. Competence is not the only thing the NOPD needs out of its leader. The NOPD needs a fundamental change in philosophy.

Former District Attorney Eddie Jordan went on WBOK radio this morning and called for a federal intervention in the NOPD based on the Danziger Bridge shootings and cover up.

Jordan deserved to lose his job for the incompetence that crippled the district attorney’s office when he was in charge, but he was absolutely right to pursue the officers involved in the shooting.

And he’s absolutely right about the need for the Department of Justice to get involved in the reform of this police force.

The last time that the NOPD was generating national headlines for corruption, brutality, and an inability to lower crime was the early 1990s. With the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division considering a partial take over the NOPD to enforce civil rights standards, then-Mayor Marc Morial hired Richard Pennington as a way to signal that New Orleans was committed to fixing the structural problems at the department. Pennington fired many officers, remade the Internal Affairs Unit, cracked down on moonlighting details, and cut the murder rate in half.

Many of those reforms were not sustained or were not built upon.

And so we find ourselves fifteen years later with the same kind of problems just as Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu prepares to make his choice for police superintendent.

It is not as though there never will be a time to promote a new superintendent from within. It isn’t as though there are zero officers in the force that might one day prove to be capable superintendents.

But now? At this moment?

No matter whom he hires, Landrieu should consider asking the Department of Justice for their support. But if he simply promotes from within, he might not have to ask.

It isn’t just about the competence and honesty of the potential hire, it’s about problems that may arise from his or her exposure to the systemic problems on this particular force and the lack of exposure to other forces around the country that might provide a positive example for the reforms required here.

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  • dsb

    Right. There’s no reason to be defensive about picking someone from outside the department. Cities do national searches for police chiefs all the time. Besides, it’s not like anyone’s talking about some kind of de-Baathification program. It’s just obvious this police department has a credibility problem, as Eli well describes, so it’s kind of a no-brainer we should look to someone who has had some degree of success in his/her career, as well as less baggage. That’s not to say it would be impossible for someone locally to emerge in the search process, it’s not like locals should be excluded (and I’m sure nobody is advocating that), but you’d think we would have heard of him/her by now.

    New Orleans matters enough to attract top talent for this (I think we all agree) crucial position. It seems doubtful–at best–the ideal candidate is currently an NOPD officer. Maybe there’s a future chief on the force, but ready to step in right now?

  • Jeff

    E, just wanted to give you props for totally calling this months (if not a year) ago. This is indeed a systemic problem, and requires reform that by definition has to come from the outside, not incremental change from within.

    I hope this is the beginning of the change that we need.

  • Eli Ackerman

    I don’t feel like I was ahead of the curve at all. Our neighbors have been howling about post-Katrina wanton violence by New Orleans police for years. It is a shame that it is taking so long for us to seriously investigate and prosecute these crimes. I am hopeful that convictions in the murders on Danziger bridge will provide some measure of vindication for those that have been far better justice advocates than I, but I also dread the political impulse to “move on” or “look forward” out of fear of a full confrontation with the truth. Putting the Danziger 7 in jail does not mean we will have a healthy criminal justice system. There are cumulative problems that need to be dealt with radically and seriously.