Former New Orleans Police Super-intendent Ronal Serpas lived by statistics when he was the top cop in Nashville, Tennessee, and he brought that same stat-focused attitude to his four years as the chief of the NOPD. When he departed Nashville, some — including that city's mayor — expressed skepticism about many of the statistics Serpas cited to show that the city had become a safer place to live. Last week, it was deja vu as the New Orleans Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued another report casting a gimlet eye on Serpas' statistics during his tenure as chief here, saying the department routinely misclassified robbery cases to the FBI during the first three years of Serpas' tenure.
It was not the first time the OIG had audited the department and delivered a critical report. In May, the OIG found similar patterns in NOPD's reporting of rape cases to the FBI, which assembles national crime statistics as part of its Unified Crime Report (UCR) program. As he had done before, Serpas accepted a few of the most recent criticisms, disputed others and asserted, "This report does not appear to identify any real systemic failings or present evidence that more than a tiny fraction of UCR robbery incidents go unreported."
Though the OIG report was released Aug. 26, Serpas' letter to Inspector Gen- eral Ed Quatrevaux was dated Aug. 8 — 10 days before Serpas' retirement was announced. Three days after that letter, an officer shot a man in the head during a traffic stop in Algiers, a fact that went unreported for two days until The Times-Picayune broke the story. Serpas said the department had fully intended to report the officer-involved shooting but somehow had slipped up. He produced an email chain to bolster his claim that there was no intent to withhold the news. Still, it was an embarrassing mistake.
That flub may have been the last straw for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who had stood by his hand-picked chief during earlier controversies. Within a week, Landrieu had reassigned his own press secretary to be the NOPD's public information officer (PIO) — a job that had remained vacant for four months. Four days after that, Serpas called a Monday press conference to announce he was stepping down for a new job opportunity, which turned out to be in Loyola University's Department of Criminal Justice. At the conclusion of the press conference, 7th District Commander Michael Harrison, an NOPD veteran who previously led the department's Public Integrity Division, was sworn in as interim chief. Landrieu has made several appearances with Harrison since, signaling his support for the new chief and even saying that Harrison is a strong candidate for the permanent job.
In addition to questions about the veracity of NOPD statistics, Serpas had been particularly unpopular among the rank and file. The former chief attributed that to his zero-tolerance policy. "You lie, you die," he had said of his officers. That sounded good to citizens, but a 2012 survey of NOPD officers about job satisfaction, conducted by Tulane University, found widespread dissatisfaction. Harrison moved quickly last week to signal that he understood at least one concern, rescinding Serpas' voucher system for uniform and gear purchases (NOPD officers buy their own uniforms) and replacing it with a cash stipend, which officers prefer.
During Serpas' first year, 153 cops left the NOPD. Some needed to go. Equally significant, however, is the fact that not one officer was hired that year. While Serpas was bullish about the department's recruiting program and training academy, the tide never turned, not even when the budget loosened up. In fact, the most dispiriting statistic during Serpas' tenure was one that no one could dispute: the NOPD's attrition rate. When Serpas announced his resignation Aug. 18, the department had only 1,139 cops on the force. The city's goal is 1,600 officers.
Throughout Serpas' tenure, the public complained that the city wasn't being adequately patrolled, and district commanders readily admitted they were understaffed and overworked. In an open letter after the June shootings on Bourbon Street, NOPD Capt. Michael Glasser, president of the Police Association of New Orleans and a longtime critic of Serpas and Landrieu, said the department was losing three officers a week.
To their credit, Harrison and the mayor launched a hands-on recruiting effort right after Harrison assumed his new job. They visited black churches with NOPD brass, urging young men and women to "get behind the badge." We hope their call will be answered. Our city's survival depends on it.