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Serpas resigns amid wave of violence

25th August 2014   ·   0 Comments

NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas called it quits August 18 after four years at the helm of an embattled police department besieged by a hot of problems and challenges that include a severe manpower shortage, rising violent crime and a federally mandated consent decree.

Serpas’ resignation came just five days after the NOPD was sharply criticized for not reporting an Aug. 11 officer-involved shooting in which a suspect was shot in the head by a female officer who turned off her body camera shortly before the incident.

The department has been scrutinized in recent reports by the Metropolitan Crime Commission and the city’s Office of Inspector General, both of which said the NOPD’s ability to fight crime was hampered by mismanagement of its available personnel. Both reports recommended that the NOPD hire civilian employees to perform office tasks in order to free up cops to patrol the streets of New Orleans.

The City of New Orleans and the NOPD were taken to task earlier this summer for waiting several days before releasing information to the public about the identities of 10 people shot on Bourbon Street in late June. In that incident, 21-year-old nursing student Brittany Thomas died from a gunshot wound while nine others were wounded. Six of the 10 shooting victims were tourists.

While the city’s murder rate has been dropping, the NOPD’s statistics show that violent crimes like assaults and robberies are on the rise.

Over the first three months of 2014, New Orleans experienced a 27.9 percent drop in murders compared to the same period last year.

During the first three months of 2014, there were 31 murders, 51 rapes, 253 armed robberies, 117 simple robberies and 467 assaults, compared with 43 murders, 31 rapes, 152 armed robberies, 81 simple robberies and 358 assaults during the same period in 2013.

Murder was down in the first quarter of 2014 by 27.9 percent, rape was up 64.5 percent, armed robbery rose 66 percent, simple burglary rose 44 percent and assault was up 31 percent.

While the number of murders in New Orleans is at a historic nearly 30-year low and a further drop in homicides was reported last week, it was too little, too late to save Serpas’ job.

With his family, the mayor and others at his side last week, the police chief took his final bow.

“I want to thank Mayor Landrieu for giving me the opportunity to come back home to New Orleans to lead the fine men and women of the NOPD,” Serpas said Monday. “This has been a great run under very difficult circumstances. When I came back in 2010, we needed dramatic changes. Together with Mayor Landrieu and the brave men and women of the force, we have turned this department around and laid a strong foundation for the future.”

“We began instituting the reforms of the consent decree, improved training and hiring standards, and modernized the department’s facilities and equipment,” Serpas continued. “Murder is down significantly. After Mayor Landrieu was re-elected, after my 34 years of service, and my decision to retire, we both recognized that it was time to hand the reins over to new leadership in the department. I will be retiring to pursue other opportunities. As a native New Orleanian, there is nothing I am more committed to doing than ensuring the success of this department and the safety of our city, and I can assure you that I will continue to be involved in that fight.”

The mayor showered the retiring chief with praise and accolades last week and described a police department that has made a number of significant improvements over the last four years.

“Making our city safe is my top priority, and I am proud to have worked with Chief Serpas over the past four years as he led this department through very challenging circumstances and turned this department around,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said. “I want to thank Chief Serpas and his family for their service and sacrifice. Chief Serpas inherited a department in disarray with several federal investigations and deep budget problems. There was no crime lab and rape kits collected dust on shelves. We’ve made significant progress and have begun to fix many of the fundamentals.”

“I want to thank Chief Serpas for his years of service during a difficult transition period, involving the consent decree, a deepening morale problem within NOPD’s rank and file and our battle against violent crime in New Orleans,” Councilwoman Latoya Cantrell said in a statement released Monday. “I look forward to working with the interim chief Lt. Michael Harrison, the Mayor, The Council and city and community leaders to rebuild and strengthen NOPD’s morale and to make our streets safer, ensuring that we have a chief and police department that is a part of the community it seeks to protect and serve.”

Michael Harrison, a 23-year NOPD veteran and former member of the department’s Public Integrity Bureau, will step up to serve as interim chief until a permanent superintendent is found, Most recently, Harrison, 34, served as Commander of the NOPD’s 7th District.

Harrison is a New Orleans native and graduate of McDonogh 35 Senior High School.

At a Westbank town hall meeting on crime Monday evening, the mayor said Harrison was an odd-on favorite to permanently fill the NOPD superintendent vacancy. “Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” Landrieu joked.

On Tuesday morning, an officer who identified himself only as :Eddie” told WWL Radio that Serpas was the kind of police chief who looked out for those who he knew but did not go out of his way to help those who were not part of his nine circle.

Asked to identify the best New Orleans police chief in recent history, Eddie said without hesitating, “Richard Pennington.” Penning­ton, an outsider who once served as Washington, DC’s police chief, commanded the respect of the men and women of the NOPD and led the department through some of its darkest days in the wake of the brazen killing of resident Kim Groves by NOPD officer Len Davis. That case and other examples of excessive force and corruption led to the implementation of a federally mandated NOPD consent decree in the 1990s.

Former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial would later say that the NOPD was making progress with Pennington leading the department but added that the progress did not continue after Ray Nagin was elected mayor in 2002.

Serpas’ woes as police chief began before he even was selected as several members of a search committed tasked by Mayor-elect Landrieu to find a new police chief abruptly resigned their posts. Among them was NAACP New Orleans branch president Danatus King, who told The Louisiana Weekly that the mayor had already selected Serpas and was not considering input from committee members.

Also stepping down from the NOPD Task Force were Norris Henderson, executive director of Voice of the Ex-Offender; Gina Womack and Baty Landis.

In a resignation letter, Hender­son, Womack and Landis wrote that their “input is not desired to the extent we were led to believe.

“At this time, it seems that further community input is neither desired nor needed as part of the actual decision-making process; the transition team has called for a halt to further internal comment on the search process.”

Throughout his tenure as police chief, Serpas was sharply criticized by Black community leaders and residents for a number of high-profile police shootings and the NOPD’s use of racial profiling. Several years ago, a police memo surfaced that instructed cops assigned to the French Quarter to target young Black males during the Essence Music Festival. A similar email surfaced pressuring cops working in Mid-City to target people of color.

Cops representing the Mid-City Retail District encountered 20-year-old Justin Sipp, and his brother Earl, 23, as the younger Sipp was headed to work early one boring near City Park. Justin Sipp was fatally shot by police and Earl Sipp was shot in the leg.

A week earlier, 20-year-old Wendell Allen was gunned down by NOPD Officer Josh Colclough while standing shirtless on the staircase of his Gentilly home.
The Allen and Sipp families both filed federal lawsuits against the NOPD and the City of New Orleans in 2013.

In 2013, two Black teenagers —Ferdinand Hunt and Sidney Newman — were assaulted by about a dozen plainclothes state troopers while waiting in the French Quarter after a Carnival parade for a meal to be brought to them by NOPD Officer Verna Hunt, Ferdinand’s mother. The entire incident was caught on surveillance video. The video shows that when Officer Hunt approached the plainclothes officers, the troopers disbanded.

While both Mayor Landrieu and Chief Serpas condemned the actions of the state troopers caught on video, neither acknowledged the role the NOPD played in the incident, although earlier footage clearly showed a white female NOPD officer instructing the state troopers to confront the teenagers.

The release of the video sparked community outrage and members of the NAACP and other activists organized a sit-in at City Hall and demanded a public meeting with the mayor to discuss racial profiling.

Initially, the mayor agreed to meet with the community at Christian Unity Baptist Church but later reneged and decided to hold his own meeting on the same date and at the same time as the meeting at Christian Unity. The mayor’s meeting was held at First Emanuel Baptist Church, the same place that the mayor insisted on holding the funeral for Wendell Allen after donating $1,000 to a funeral home by First Emanuel pastor Rev. Charles J. Southall.

For more than a year, Mayor Landrieu and Chief Serpas tried to convince the federal courts to toss out the NOPD consent decree. Among other things, they argued that the consent-decree negotiation process was contaminated by the involvement of several federal prosecutors who illegally posted comments on Nola.com about several active DOJ cases, that the city couldn’t afford to pay for NOPD and Orleans Parish Prison consent decrees and that the NOPD didn’t need a consent decree because it had already begun to implement its own reforms.

The federal courts rejected those arguments.

Additional time was wasted as CNO and DOJ officials butted heads over the selection of a NOPD consent-decree federal monitor. After several delays and postponements, the deadline for selecting a monitor passed and U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan was forced to appoint a monitor, Washington, DC-based Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton.

Asked to assess Serpas’ relationship with New Orleans’ Black community, W.C. Johnson, host of local cable-access show “Our­Story” and a member of Com­munity United for Change, said, “He has had very little, if any, actual relationship with the community, except for a ‘Bull Connors’ relationship.

“Serpas’ relationship with his own officers bordered on mutiny during his entire tenure as police chief,” Johnson continued. “Serpas refused to establish any relationship with the Black community, except to flex his muscles. As thrilled as CUC is to see Serpas go, we are grieving that he is able to leave with the $144,000 per year that he did not deserve. Mitch made sure at all cost Serpas would be taken care of for the rest of his life; at the cost to the taxpayers.”

In addition to his generous pension, Serpas will be compensated for teaching a criminal justice course at Loyola University.

On Wednesday’s show, Johnson questioned Serpas’ stated reasons for retiring and questioned the police chief’s statement that he is leaving after making improvements at the NOPD.

Johnson reminded his viewers that things are anything but good within the NOPD and that even federal consent-decree monitor Sheppard Mullin said this summer that the NOPD still has “a long way to go” to become compliant with federal standards for constitutional policing.

A number of community leaders have surmised that the unreported NOPD shooting on August 11 and the turning off of the officer’s body camera shortly before the suspect, Armand Bennet, was shot in the head might have sealed Serpas’ fate as police chief.

Johnson talked Friday about the incident and what it means as the DOJ continues to try to implement major NOPD reforms.

“After the shooting of Armand Bennett, I called the federal monitor to see if New Orleans would hear from the federal monitor or if any attention to the violations of several NOPD policies would be given additional scrutiny,” Johnson told The Louisiana Weekly. “I was very dissatisfied with the response from the federal monitor, which indicates to me that the community and the people of New Orleans have been left out of the process and the commitment of transparency has been locked away in the NOPD’s evidence room. I can only speculate that the federal monitor will be affected negatively for the people of New Orleans.”

Johnson said CUC will converge soon and scrutinize all candidates to replace Serpas, including those who are already affiliated with the NOPD.

During the recent mayoral election, candidates Danatus King and retired Judge Michael Bagneris sharply criticized the Serpas administration and said the NOPD’s leadership was sorely lacking.

Incumbent Mayor Mitch Landrieu defended his decision to hire and retain Serpas during the televised debate and said he was doing “a great job.”

Last week, Bagneris, who finished second in the mayoral race, called Serpas’ resignation an “important first step toward turning the tide on crime.”

“I noted repeatedly in my campaign that had I been elected, my first order of business as mayor would have been to replace Chief Serpas,” Bagneris said Monday. “I strongly believe after talking to so many police officers and the leadership of PANO that many of the challenges toward fighting crime stem from the poor leadership at the highest rank.”

Bagneris ran aggressively on the platform to hire a new Chief of Police, and stop the “blue hemorrhage.” Bagneris aired a political television commercial showing police officers disappearing from patrols across the city as he noted that NOPD had 1537 commissioned police officers when Mayor Mitch Landrieu first took office and the number of officers commissioned at the time of the campaign was less than 1,200 and falling.

“This is a critical decision for the mayor because nothing less than the future of our city is on the line,” Bagneris said. “I hope he will be inclusive in his process for selecting a new chief. I hope he will heed the advice of those who best understand our criminal justice system and our need for strong leadership at the top rank.”

Bagneris last week recommended that the candidates for chief be vetted aggressively on issues beyond patrolling and crime fighting techniques. “I can only hope for our city that we select a new chief who not only offers a strong plan for policing our neighborhoods and attacking crime at its roots, but who also is ready to deal with the personal side of policing that impacts every family with a relative in uniform,” Bagneris said. “Good pensions for police, fair civil service practices over private human resource divisions, the benefit of allowing officers to profit from a paid detail system are all ways to help the families of those who put their lives on the line. I will be among the first to volunteer my time, ideas, history in our justice system and personal advice on ways to quickly and aggressively pursue new recruits. We must have more police on our streets. There is no greater opportunity than now to turn the tide on crime.”

*Additional reporting by Louisiana Weekly editor Edmund W. Lewis.

This article originally published in the August 25, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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