The soft bigotry of low expectations." That famous phrase was coined by White House speechwriter Michael Gerson for then-President George W. Bush, who was defending his No Child Left Behind education agenda. Regardless of how one feels about No Child Left Behind, Bush's underlying point was a sound one: If you set high goals and provide appropriate support, people usually meet your expectations, and then some.
That's why it was so disheartening to learn last week that New Orleans Police Chief Ronal Serpas had set one of NOPD's most important goals so low. In a March report to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Serpas wrote that he aimed to reduce the city's murder rate by 5 percent.
In 1996, then-chief Richard Pennington, Serpas' mentor and close friend, went before the New Orleans City Council and boldly pledged to reduce the city's record-level murder rate by 50 percent in three years — if the council would devote more resources to NOPD, including a long-overdue pay raise for officers. Pennington got the resources, and he kept his promise.
Last month, in a one-on-one interview, Gambit asked Serpas if he could make the same promise. He said he couldn't, due to a variety of factors. "Things were completely different in 1996," he said. "In 1996 our department did not do a very good job at several things: We were not coordinated across the department between detectives and officers. ... We also had very little effort at all in investigating less-than-lethal events. In fact, most of them just ended up in a file cabinet. And nobody ever did any follow-up. ... Now, 15 years later, we're still doing a much better job of a decentralized investigative strategy, so we can't really advance that much compared to what we did 15 years ago."
Fair enough, but a mere 5 percent reduction is not acceptable. Cutting the murder rate by 5 percent in 2011 would save less than one life a month. In a city that's still known worldwide as a murder capitol, now led by a mayor and police chief who came in as reformers, cutting the murder rate by nine people this year is just not good enough — particularly in a city with a population substantially smaller than the one Pennington policed.
When Warren Riley was police chief (September 2005 to May 2010), the murder numbers bounced up and down. From 2006 to 2007, for example, New Orleans saw murders spike from 160 to 210. In fairness to Riley and NOPD, the city's post-Katrina population also rose significantly during those two years. In 2008, as the city continued to repopulate, the rate dropped to 179; in 2009, with a slightly larger population, New Orleans' murder rate fell again, slightly, to 174. During the last three calendar years of Riley's watch, with the city's population growing, New Orleans' murder rate went down almost 15 percent. It held steady in 2010, with 175 murders.
When Gambit interviewed Serpas on June 6 of this year, the number remained flat: 90 murders by that date in 2011 compared to 90 murders during the same time frame in 2010. One factor in Pennington's success, Serpas told us, was "a very robust expansion of NORD (New Orleans Recreation Department) in giving young people quality afternoon experiences that might help them learn how to deal with conflict." NORD suffered terribly under former Mayor Ray Nagin. Landrieu, by contrast, has doubled NORD's budget and opened more swimming pools and summer camps. The city also has expanded a summer job-training program for teenagers. Bottom line: Serpas now has that tool in his belt, and citizens therefore should expect better results in the crime figures.
Clearly, New Orleans has societal and systemic problems that long predate Serpas' arrival as chief. Still, a goal of reducing the city's murder rate by 5 percent isn't going to cut it among a population weary of bullets and bodies. Serpas has broadcast his expectations when it comes to officers' conduct. He should be equally vociferous when it comes to curbing violent crime. If we're going to eliminate the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that stifle too many of our city's youth, it's time to raise the expectations of our police force as well.