Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu and his NOPD Task Force want to know what you're looking for in the next police chief. We should all take them up on their offer.
No doubt some will say this is just a squishy, feel-good exercise, but that ignores the potential of public hearings to take on a life of their own when citizens are aroused and engaged. The task force will host a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday (March 11) in the Superdome's South West Club Claiborne Room. The location suggests they expect a large turnout.
If you can't make it, you can still weigh in by completing a survey, either online at www.transitionneworleans.com or by picking up a hard copy at the Urban League of Greater New Orleans (2322 Canal St.).
Landrieu issued a press release noting that "often times the best ideas come from people in neighborhoods." That kind of bottom-up approach is what he promised in his campaign, but it only works if folks on the bottom get engaged. "I'm encouraging citizens to let their voices be heard as we work to find the next police chief," Landrieu said.
The survey asks citizens about the criteria and characteristics New Orleans needs in its next police chief. The mayor-elect promised a national search.
The new chief, like the new mayor, can't get here fast enough. The department, much like the rest of city government, has all the attributes of a leaderless culture. It has been racked recently by several scandals in relatively quick succession, most of them related to cops' behavior during and right after Hurricane Katrina.
The Katrina cases are all under investigation by the feds as possible civil rights violations — the kind of cases that undermine public confidence and make it even more difficult for good cops to do their jobs. Lest anyone forget, the vast majority of New Orleans cops are good men and women who work hard, against unbelievable odds, to do the right thing.
Last week, the FBI took the unusual step of acknowledging it has opened at least seven civil rights investigations into NOPD. The announcement was made in part to generate citizen cooperation and bring forth potential witnesses. Like the Landrieu task force's attempt to get citizens involved in selecting the next police chief, the FBI's investigations are only as good as the public's response. Without corroborating witnesses, the feds have no cases.
In the opinion of many in and around the Landrieu circle and even some at NOPD, the recent scandals and FBI investigations increase the chances the next police chief will not come from within NOPD. Most likely, they say, the new chief will be an out-of-towner. That's based on the notion that anyone who presently works at NOPD is somehow tainted — an unfair but understandable assumption in light of recent developments. If the mayor wants to clean house at NOPD, his best chances of doing so are by bringing someone in from the outside, or so the logic goes. We'll see.
The bigger picture is the fact that it has taken federal investigations to bring the scandals to light — including testimony from at least one cop who admits helping cover up the Danziger Bridge incident. That fact reflects a "code of silence" that seems to permeate NOPD. The code is a hallmark of insular cultures like police departments, but such cultures are not unique to cops. The military, the medical profession, the legal profession, politicians and journalists also are loathe to admit their mistakes.
Fixing NOPD is a big part of fixing the local crime problem. Neither will be an easy fix.