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.”