By Matt Davis, The Lens staff writer |

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas faced tough questioning this afternoon from a skeptical City Council about how his well-publicized reforms are  addressing the city’s homicide rate.

The chief came armed with a sheaf of statistics to support his efforts, but council members were not receptive just two days after a bloody Halloween night in which gun violence killed two men and injured 14 people across the city, including a fatality in the French Quarter.

The questions came as the council continued its review of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposed 2012 budget.   In addition to the budget for the New Orleans Police Department, today’s hearing also reviewed the proposed budgets for the New Orleans Fire Department and its retirement system, the Orleans Parish Communications District, which runs the city’s 911 call center, and the New Orleans Emergency Medical Service, which is responsible for the city’s ambulances.

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas said he is still looking for the silver bullet that would stop homicide from happening in New Orleans at a tense budget hearing on Wednesday. Photo by Matt Davis

Serpas, whose budget is slated to be increased by 9 percent from $109.4 million in 2011 to $119.5 million next year, opened his presentation with a series of dense PowerPoint slides listing various successes at the department since he took office 18 months ago. These included clearing a backlog of 800 sexual assault kits, and improving accountability for cops. He said 26 resigned or retired while under investigation by the Public Integrity Bureau, and 17 were dismissed for misconduct under his tenure. A 65-point plan to overhaul the department is 92 percent in place, Serpas said, while another plan to overhaul the homicide department is 73 percent complete, and the NOPD has reduced arrests 32 percent by instead issuing summonses for minor crimes, such as possession of small amounts of drugs.

But the council was nonplussed.

“With all that you are doing, why, after 18 months, are we still the highest murder rate in the country?” asked Council President Jackie Clarkson. “I am hearing for the first time from people who love to come to this city that they are afraid to come anymore. We have people in this city that are scared and they are moving out.”

Clarkson and Councilwoman Stacy Head both told Serpas, separately: “The buck stops with you.”

Serpas presented statistics that show New Orleans had an average of 214, 312 and 215 homicides per year in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, respectively. Even with the Halloween killings, Tulane criminologist Peter Scharf has tracked just 168 homicides in New Orleans so far this year. At that pace, the city will end the year with 201 killings.

Serpas said the department is trying everything possible to address the issue.

The chief presented statistics showing that New Orleans has a lower rate of overall crime per 1,000 residents than 10 other cities with which it competes for convention business, including Atlanta, Orlando, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. It also has a violent crime rate of 7.5 incidents per 1,000 residents, far lower than St Louis, which has a rate of 19.4 per 1,000, and lower than seven other cities including Oakland, Cleveland, Miami, and Pittsburgh.

But Serpas’s comparisons with other cities also did little to win over the council president.

“They’re not being discussed by the rest of the country as we are,” Clarkson said.

Serpas said the department is under-staffed with just 1,353 officers, when a recent study shows it needs 1,575 officers “in a perfect world.”

Meanwhile Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, two of whose four sons, Todd and Nicholas, are both police officers, said Serpas’s various reform initiatives are also doing little to improve the morale of the rank and file officers whose working conditions remain considerably poorer than other officers around the country.

“I’m all for new programs, but the bottom line for the citizens of New Orleans, the person they look to is the patrolman on the street,” Hedge-Morrell said. “We have a beat-down police department.”

Hedge-Morrell questioned Serpas’s decision not to fund promotional exams for rank-and-file officers again this year, limiting their prospects of better pay and advancement until they are ready to sit for the sergeant’s test, several years into their careers. Jim Gallagher from the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represents 1,160 of the department’s 1,353 employees, said one of his members told him he is earning just $320 a week – less than $17,00 a year – as a full-time employee of the police department,  an untenable long-term position.

Serpas said he chose not to fund the promotional exams, with a potential cost of $800,000 a year, because he did not want to have to lay off any officers, but that it had been a “tough choice.”

Hedge-Morrell kept up her questioning, saying Serpas’ much-vaunted effort to overhaul the department’s paid detail program, which was described in March by the U.S. Justice Departments as an “aorta of corruption,”  will most likely take valuable extra income away from officers who may be using it to pay for their children to go to college.

“We’ve used details for years,” Hedge-Morrell said. “You can’t take the money out of my family’s mouth, saying you’re trying to modernize something, because you can’t even give them a patrolman’s test.”

The only council member to defend the chief was Eric Granderson, who recently replaced his former boss, Arnie Fielkow, after Fielkow stepped down.

“This is not a one department thing,” Granderson said. “There should be a number of people here to answer why we don’t have jobs for kids.”

Notably, Granderson cannot run for re-election in two years because the City Charter forbids any interim council person from running for the  open seat, so he is arguably less pressured to politicize his speech.

The rest of the council’s suggestions for Serpas to clean up the city became theatrical. For example, Clarkson suggested that Serpas lead a team of four or five officers to clean up drug crime, taking on the role of Sean Connery’s character in the 1987 Brian De Palma movie “The Untouchables,” even though Kevin Costner played the leader of that group, Federal Agent Eliot Ness.

Clarkson said Connery is better looking than Costner, which is why she allotted Serpas for that role instead of Costner’s. But her rhetoric also showed scant regard for the constitutional rights of the city’s accused criminals, just like Connery’s character in the movie.

“Take no prisoners,” Clarkson said.

Serpas responded by saying the department is moving aggressively to target serious criminals.

“I don’t want you to think that’s not happening,” he said.

Budget reviews for the other departments were less controversial today, but not without their moments.

The New Orleans Fire Department budget is slated to go from $79.9 million this year to $87.5 million next year. Councilman Jon Johnson was less concerned about next year than right now, as he relentlessly demanded action from the Fire Department and Deputy Mayor Jerry Sneed, who oversees police and firefighters, to put out the smoldering marsh fire in New Orleans East.

Johnson said he could not accept Sneed’s position that the fire will eventually burn out, and he insisted that Sneed seek help in Washington, if necessary, to get the job done.

“This is the United States of America in 2011,” Johnson said. “We go out and fight around the world in more rugged terrain than New Orleans East.”

Johnson also asked why the Lower 9th Ward and parts of eastern New Orleans still had firefighters working out of temporary facilities, a complaint echoed by Hedge-Morrell, who also represents areas east of the Industrial Canal.

“If we can renovate the Superdome in a year, why are firemen still in trailers since Katrina?” Hedge-Morrell asked.

The proposed budget devotes $9 million to fire department pensions, even though the retirees asked for $30 million to meet their projections. Hedge-Morrell expressed concern that the city risks being sued again by the retirees in a few years if it continues to pay so little into the fund, and Firefighters Union President Nick Felton agreed.

“You are making this contribution of only $9 million today, knowing full well that it’s going to come back and hurt you tomorrow,” Felton said.

The Orleans Parish Communications District, which runs the city’s 911 call center, plans to repay $450,000 that it borrowed from the city in May to hire 11 new operators after call answering standards dropped below federally mandated levels. Ninety-five percent of 911 calls are now being answered in under 20 seconds, but Councilwoman Susan Guidry said her constituents are continuing to complain about poor response times.

Guidry took particular aim at the city’s practice, begun in December, of using 911 operators to answer calls from businesses about paid details at the police department.

“It’s just horrendous when somebody tells me that they’ve called 911 three times and they’ve not gotten an answer,” Guidry said. “And the worst thing that jumps out to me is that non-emergency calls are being answered by emergency call takers.”

The New Orleans Emergency Medical Service continues to work within its budget, and 90 percent of emergency medical calls are being answered within 12 minutes.

Johnson took aim once again at Sneed and the Landrieu administration for failing to honor a promise, made during last year’s budget process, to park three ambulances in eastern New Orleans to make up for the lack of hospital service in the district.

“The mayor made a commitment that he would have three ambulances stationed in New Orleans East, and it’s never happened,” Johnson said.

Sneed said the ambulances are in the area as promised, but that they are too busy answering calls to simply park up on the highway to be seen by voters.

“You can’t just station an ambulance there because they’re on the calls,” Sneed said.

Johnson said he is consistently being asked about the issue in the community, nonetheless, because community members can’t see the ambulances.

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