A few hours ago, Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced that former NOPD Deputy Superintendent and current Nashville police chief Ronal Serpas will lead the NOPD. Landrieu was enthusiastic and effusive in his praise of Serpas, whom he said presented “clear and away the best resume that many people in the country have seen.”
“This is the first step,” he said. “The second step is to work with the Department of Justice to change the culture of the New Orleans Police Department.”
Skeptics have questioned whether it is advisable to hire someone who has a history with the NOPD, given its appalling record. Landrieu looked as Serpas as part insider part outsider – someone familiar with the force and with the city but with a track record of success in other departments.
There’s no perfect candidate, number one. Number two, the experts said that actually the best candidate was someone who knows the department but is not of it. Anybody who looks at where Ronnie Serpas has been the last 10 years and looks at the incredible work that he did in Washington and Nashville can’t do anything but conclude that he really understands the best practices around the country. Having been gone for 10 years, actually the experience he had in the department is an asset. The 1,000-person survey we did basically said ‘we don’t want anybody who is in the department now.’ As a consequence of that, I had a very hard time giving serious consideration to people who were in the department, although I did.
The reason that I chose him above the other candidates was that he was the only one that met all of the criteria that were set out. The first and most important was demonstrable success at reducing violent crime in a major urban area. Somebody that understood the culture and streets of New Orleans but who also understood best practices throughout the country. Somebody that was technically proficient, that had demonstrated capacity to use innovative technological resources to fight crime and stay on the cutting edge. Somebody that was well educated, well researched, and well written. He also has extensive experience in community policing. He also has a great reputation both in Nashville and in Washington (State) for his ability to work across cultural lines, racial lines, and geographic lines. He also comes to me very highly recommended by the individuals he worked for in both of those states.
As I wrote recently, there are real benefits to hiring someone who is already familiar with the basics of the city. Many an outside expert have struggled to truly learn about this city and persevere through the adversity that comes from reforming an agency beset by entrenched parochialism. This was a prudent choice in that way. Hiring Serpas wasn’t going to win Landrieu any points, but it was the safest decision to make.
I had grown fond of Landrieu’s other final cut for the position, Ronald Davis from Bay Area. But because he has never led a department of this size or commanded a budget of this size, he definitely brought many more unknowns to the table.
Either way, it was going to be hard to be disappointed – the NOPD is absolutely going to change for the better.
The involvement of the Department of Justice, likely in the form of a consent decree, will mandate many of the important policy changes that were a big part of Davis’ appeal. However, independent of whatever differences may exist in terms of the candidates’ crime-fighting philosophies, it is hard to argue that Serpas isn’t the more experienced and qualified administrator. Serpas will be tasked with implementing the policy changes set forth by the consent decree; it isn’t as if he’ll be implementing his own ideology in isolation of federal oversight.
Zooming out for a second, the very fact that the NOPD is about to undergo an enormous leadership overhaul amid the thorough partnership of the Department of Justice indicates that a rather, for lack of a better word, unprecedented undertaking. Incredible human capital is being invested into changing this department.
Though it will take a long time to judge whether the reforms prove long-lasting, I have little doubt that the NOPD is about to undergo a major rehabilitation that will yield a far more effective, respectable, and respectful police force than the one we have now. Wednesday’s press conference, in which Landrieu essentially requested that the Department of Justice sue the NOPD and obtain a consent decree to intervene in the department, was surreal. I started writing about this kind of solution a long time ago, in 2008, as I recall, and I can’t help but tell you how simultaneously sad and wonderful to see it actually being implemented.
It’s sad, of course, that we’re even in a position where we have to beg the federal government to sue our police department. This has been one of the most sorry things I could imagine for residents of a city to have to go through. This police department lost the confidence of the residents of this city in an absolutely sensational, comprehensive, and criminal fashion. It has taken far too long for us to confront our criminal justice apparatus over their inability to make this city safe amid deleteriously high rates of incarceration.
But here we are. We are finally making this chronic disaster a priority. That feels incredibly gratifying.
I am enthusiastic about giving Serpas a real shot to lead the charge to change. I hope that other Serpas skeptics are willing to give him the same chance. We all have an interest in ensuring that this is the last time we ever have to take this kind of wrecking ball to our police force, and I’m genuinely excited by the hope that this could very well set this department up for long term stability and success.