Criminal Justice

Activists plan Thursday protest against NOPD chief Serpas


New Orleans celebrated the inauguration of Mayor Mitch Landrieu with a jubilant second line last Monday. Smiling wide and swaying from the hips, the new mayor danced through downtown New Orleans. Rebirth Brass Band played. Men in suits and ladies in hats clapped as they trotted along the smooth – for New Orleans – pavement of St. Charles Avenue.

At another recent street party, though, the guys selling the beer were already asking for another change.

At Sunday’s second line in the Seventh Ward – the first social aid and pleasure club parade since Landrieu took office – vendors hawking ice cold Heinekens had with them a new accessory: a flier announcing a protest of the mayor’s selection of Ronal Serpas as the new police superintendent. The upcoming Thursday protest will be the first public show of dissatisfaction with the new chief, who hasn’t even come to town yet for his new job.

The event, to be held at 11 a.m. in front of City Hall, is sponsored by a coalition of grassroots organizations called Community United for Change, organizer W.C. Johnson said by phone Sunday. Johnson is a longtime activist and the founder of a black nationalist media organization, OurStory Network. Other organizations sponsoring the rally include: Safe Streets-Strong Communities, African Americans Against Police Brutality, and Stand with Dignity.

“At public meetings, people said over and over they were looking for someone with no ties to the NOPD, someone who could clean it up,” Johnson said. “We did not get that.”

At a news conference Thursday to announce Serpas’ appointment, Landrieu presented a different interpretation of the sentiments voiced at the meetings and in a survey of local people.

“The 1,000-person survey we did basically said ‘We don’t want anybody who is in the department now,’ ” he said. The mayor repeatedly referred to “objective criteria” that he said represented the community’s desires and provided a rubric for selection.

Looking over the survey questions and the summary of results as tallied by the transition team, however, one is left puzzling over that conclusion. Nowhere in the survey does it ask if it is desirable to have a superintendent from the department, whether now or in the past.

The closest the survey comes to that is asking how important it is that the new chief have “extensive knowledge of community, crime, and police issues specific to New Orleans.” Of the 920 survey respondents, 76 percent said that was “very important” or “important.”  Later in the survey it asks respondents to rate their satisfaction with the department. The NOPD received a positive reception with a little over 41 percent rating the department’s performance as good or very good, 29 percent of people pleading neutral and only 29.5 percent giving failing marks.

Another rally organizer, Allen James, executive director of Safe Streets-Strong Communities, said the survey was interpreted “conveniently” and that it didn’t represent a true cross-section of the city, based on what he said he heard at public meetings.

“There was a clear expression across a broad base that crossed racial lines that the appointment of someone who has been a commander or a part of the NOPD would undermine confidence,” he said.

One Landrieu adviser said that whatever the survey said, the decision to pick Serpas was a wise one – though one that may put the new mayor at odds with public opinion.

“It took balls,” said Peter Scharf, a Tulane University criminologist and a former member of Landrieu’s criminal justice transition team.

Serpas began his career at the NOPD, quickly rising to be, at 29, the youngest captain in the history of the department. In 1996, then-superintendent Richard Pennington appointed him to be his second in command. Serpas stayed on as the department’s Chief of Operations until leaving New Orleans in 2001 to run the Washington State Patrol.

But even after the new superintendent’s nine-year absence from NOPD break rooms and squad cars, critics involved in the upcoming protest say Serpas’ roots in the NOPD run deep, and that the people of the city want a “complete break” from the department.

Scharf said the unrest was not altogether surprising; the mayor strayed from New Orleans tradition when he did not follow the rule of either/or. Serpas is both an insider with a portfolio of experience as well as an outsider with connections from other parts of the country. He is from the NOPD but he is not of the NOPD, Landrieu pointed out at his news conference.

“There are people in that department who are living out disputes from the 1990s,” Scharf said. “People are still mad at the guy who took away their take-home car in the 1990s. Serpas understands that. He knows that, but he has … a different perspective.”

But does difference of perspective even matter at a time when the mere mention of the NOPD elicits shudders from the majority of the city’s population, a time when the most ardent community justice activists would rather be policed by federal monitors than local officers? Will the community activists who advocated for a complete break from the department’s past accept a superintendent who rose through its ranks?

And perhaps more importantly, will the mayor be able to communicate with those who question him?

The mayor did not respond to questions about a relationship between Serpas’ 28-year-old daughter and a suspended NOPD officer tied to the Beach Corner bar brawl, now being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice. When asked more generally about Serpas’ relationship with the NOPD and record of performance there – including a reprimand from former Superintendent Richard Pennington for misrepresenting departmental spending – Landrieu said only that he did not see anything in the candidate’s record that raised red flags.

That, in combination with the cavalier response to criticism of the choice, is its own red flag, Johnson said.

“A lot of the old guard that has been fighting police brutality for a long time is not happy,” he said, “and the mayor will have to hear that soon enough.”

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  • So you’re suggesting that Ward is more than a witness to the brawl and was actually involved in some way? Or am I misunderstanding what you mean by “tied to the Beach Corner bar brawl.”

  • Well, I had my doubts based on the revelations you guys posted regarding the daughter’s ties and misrepresenting the spending, however I feel that these folks concern regarding police brutality may be premature (with the DOJ now on the case), unhelpful, and perhaps overly dramatic.

  • Ward accompanied other NOPD officers to the Beach Corner. He was a witness to the fight, which is now being investigated by the FBI. This means that he is involved in the incident because his testimony was used to prove the guilt or innocence of his colleagues. Now those decisions, and the testimonies that led to them are being reassessed because the FBI suspects a cover-up.

    As for that night, Ward testified to the Public Integrity Bureau that he “did not know an altercation had occurred in the rear of the club” because he was playing on the poker machines. He goes onto say that after “several minutes” he turned around, saw that his buddies from the NOPD had left the bar and followed them outside. Once outside, he saw a crowd of police officers and a “black male gentleman on the ground” with a “heavyset white male on top of him.” He reported asking what was going on and being told “dude i was a 95G,” which is code for a gun. Another officers was screaming “if you are not involved go back inside,” Ward testified. He said he then left the bar. Ward reported that he returned to the bar later that same night with other officers who were present during the altercation. While there is no evidence that he participated in the fight he was involved in the event and the subsequent cover-up that is now under investigation.

    Perhaps we should have included all those details in the original version in the story. Frankly,we were rushing to get it out before Landrieu announced Serpas’ appointment on Thursday. Hope that clarifies.

  • Thanks. I still think saying he was “tied” and “involved” in the incident implies he was more than a witness. Although I gather you’re implying that Ward might have been involved in a cover-up?

  • I don’t think we have any way of knowing if he was or was not involved in a cover-up so yes, I am implying that as as witness whose testimony is now being looked as part of an FBI investigation he is “tied” to the event.

  • mike

    I find it way too tangential to try and draw Serpas into in the Beach Corner event via a boyfriend of his daughter.

  • nobodyuknow

    So you don’t think you have any way of knowing if he was or was not involved in a coverup, yet you will IMPLY that he is connected because perhaps otherwise your entire ‘investigative report’ is nothing short of something that the Enquirer wouldn’t even give the time of day to. This is not a story, this has nothing to do with the new Chief. This is just sloppy bullshit that is completely uncorroborated by any type of fact. It’s your own personal theory. So the bartender that night @ the Beach Corner… if she has ever served anyone under Serpas a beer or a glass of wine… hell. Lets release her name as part of the cover up too! WTF is your point?

  • Casey

    I think the protests, etc are way premature. I know firsthand that Serpas is a no nonsense chief and if anyone can clean up a questionable police department, he can and will. Although valid concerns, opinions should be held until the man gets his feet on the ground and has some time to address issues and concerns. I think the citizens of NO will be pleasantly surprised.

  • Former NOPD guy

    Serpas is not a no-nonsense chief. He is from here. He got his start in the department with the worst reputation in american Law Enforement. Serpas is part of the problem now that he is Chief. Civil Service rules make it extremely difficult to fire Officers. THAT is one of the prblems.
    If Landrieu was serious about “reforming” the NOPD, he would have recruited any one of a number of qualified men from one of the following city Police depts. :
    1. LAPD
    2. NYPD
    3. Miami-Dade PD
    4. Dallas PD.

    Several of the things all of these cities have in common are that they have had bad troubles with police corruption in the past and have successfully overcome them. One of the other most IMPORTANT things about these Cities are that they are not in the “OLD SOUTH”, and the people who have spent their careers there don’t have any ties to a corrupt tradition-unlike Serpas.

    Serpas is a flop. Time will only prove me right. New Orleans is doomed. They hire everybody who applies, the education system in the Parish is barely better then Iraq, and the city is hell-bent on subsidizing housing projects, which attract and hold scumbags.

    Cut off the welfare, close the projects, invest in schools, and hire top police leadership from out of state.

    Those are real solutions. Not political BS like Landrieu and Serpas are selling the public.

  • Community United for Change, was brought and paid for by the U.S. Justice Dept.