In 1994, the FBI arrested 10 New Orleans police officers on drug trafficking charges. That same year, on the day new Police Chief Richard Pennington was sworn into office, rogue cop Len Davis ordered a hit on Kim Groves, a mother of three who had reported Davis to the NOPD's Public Integrity Division. Less than a year later, Antoinette Frank, an officer from the 7th District, robbed and murdered two young Vietnamese-Americans in their family's eastern New Orleans restaurant, where she had worked a paid detail. Frank and an accomplice also shot and murdered another person — fellow officer Ronnie Williams. Both Davis and Frank are now on death row.
No doubt many officers and civilians cringe upon hearing those names from NOPD's ugly past and say those outliers should not unfairly taint the city's many good officers. Unfortunately, the recent guilty pleas in the Danziger Bridge slayings and the ongoing federal investigations into police misconduct remind us that the past is prologue. In NOPD's case, those who do not remember history truly are condemned to repeat it — with tragic results.
We bring up those bad memories because ever since they happened we have urged mayors and police chiefs to institutionalize reforms at NOPD. In particular, we have stated repeatedly that NOPD needs an independent civilian monitor and a regular independent audit of the gathering and reporting of local crime statistics. Former Mayor Marc Morial and his police chief, Richard Pennington, did the most to change the culture of NOPD during the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s, but Morial himself admitted to Gambit at the end of his second term that his biggest regret as mayor was not institutionalizing the reforms he and Pennington put into place ("Marc's Marks," May 7, 2002).
Morial's regret proved prescient. His successor, Ray Nagin, not only let the Pennington reforms lapse but also actively discouraged any kind of federal or civilian oversight. Nagin's first police chief, Eddie Compass, joined civil rights attorneys and NOPD brass in calling for an independent monitor — which the feds recommended after an eight-year investigation of NOPD — but Nagin torpedoed the idea. The beginnings of police reform were perhaps Morial's greatest legacy, but they were undone under Nagin and his handpicked successor to Compass, Warren Riley.
Now it's up to new Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his police chief, Ronal Serpas — himself a 20-year NOPD veteran who left to establish his bona fides in Washington state and Nashville — to pick up the pieces. To their advantage, NOPD now has a civilian monitor, a city Ethics Review Board and an Office of Inspector General. They are also lucky that New Orleans now has a competent district attorney as well. Still, they have a lot of hard work to do.
Some New Orleanians wonder if a third-generation cop like Serpas can bring the changes necessary to reduce violent crime and restore community trust in NOPD. The new chief acknowledges both issues, but his first steps after being sworn in May 11 were encouraging. He promises to decentralize NOPD's power structure by giving district commanders the ability to respond quickly to developing crime trends or trouble spots in their areas. He also says he will implement weekly COMSTAT reporting meetings — open to the public — where district commanders will report crime statistics and explain their responses. Former Chief Riley vigorously opposed that idea.
Some argue that COMSTAT (a statistics-driven analysis of crime trends) encourages officers to downgrade reports to make it appear crime is dropping. Indeed, Gambit was the first New Orleans media to expose downgrading of local crimes more than 10 years ago. But that does not mean COMSTAT itself is flawed. Rather, past misuses of COMSTAT (as a basis for rewarding "drops" in crime) merely underscore the importance of an independent audit of crime reports. In that regard, we were equally encouraged to hear Serpas call for "an immediate audit of our crime reporting mechanism by state and federal authorities." That pronouncement was good news on two fronts: first, it told us that Serpas supports independent audits; and second, he also supports Landrieu's plan to have the U.S. Department of Justice intervene at NOPD via a consent degree.
It's been a long time coming, but hopefully NOPD's past is no longer prologue.