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The Gambit Interview: NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas 

The chief on his first year in office: a still-troubled police force, the paid detail mess and a persistent murder rate

This story was updated June 16.

A year ago, when Gambit sat down with New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) Superintendent Ronal Serpas, the newly arrived police chief had just returned from the top cop job in Nashville, Tenn.; the hand-picked choice of the new Mayor Mitch Landrieu. He took the reins of a highly dysfunctional NOPD, which later was slammed in a scathing March 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

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  Serpas has found his latest assignment tough going, particularly with the scandal involving the NOPD's paid detail program. The outsourcing of traffic camera reviews to Anytime Solutions LLC, a company owned by the chief's close friend, 8th District Commander Edwin Hosli, has touched off calls for Serpas' ouster — despite a statement from Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, who is investigating the Anytime Solutions contract, that he had found no wrongdoing on Serpas' part. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has also stood by Serpas publicly.

  Add to the list of Serpas' headaches the firings and resignations in NOPD's rank and file, the federal convictions in the Henry Glover case, a murder rate that remains unchanged since he arrived — and, scheduled to start June 20, the federal trial for the Danziger Bridge shootings.

  Gambit talked to Serpas in his office June 6.

GAMBIT: What progress has been made on the findings of the DOJ report that came out in March?

CHIEF SERPAS: They gave us 16 recommendations, and there's 147 action items within those 16 recommendations. So the first thing we did was begin a process of identifying by sentence what are those 147 recommendations. And we sent that out to the entire department. Now we're collecting what has been done, what needs to continue to be done.

  We still have to sit down and negotiate with [the DOJ] on every single one of these issues. So that hasn't started yet. There's been some preliminary discussions. But we needed to know what's in place, what's in progress, and what's being moved on.

G: Sounds like you're still gathering information internally?

SERPAS: Yeah. There's 147 things that they say need to be done. ... So when we sit down and actually negotiate the consent decree, we'll have this map, if you will, of the things that they think we should do, the things that we think we can agree to, and then the things we need even more information. ... It's going to be this negotiation process. So I'm limited in what I can do just yet.

G: So what's the timetable?

SERPAS: It remains to be worked out with the Department of Justice.

G: How many officers have been hired, fired, and chased away since you came here?

SERPAS: Since I came onboard, we've lost at least 150 people. There have been quite a few that have gone because the prospect of being [fired or suspended] for untruthfulness has caused some people to come in and resign right away. We have not hired a police officer since I've been here. We hope to be able to hire some people toward the end of this year. That's a very delicate position because if we hire somebody, it's 12 months before they're on the street by themselves. The academy is six months long, and we're restructuring the entire training academy with the assistance of DOJ.

  So that's an issue for us, that we have not hired anybody since I've been chief. And we are at least 150 people down. We've had some people that we've terminated that have been, you know, covered in the media. We've also had some people that have resigned in lieu of termination hearings that were pending against them. And we've had a lot of people that have just retired. So it's about 150 people total we've lost.

G: Is there a prospect of when you'll be able to hire people? Is it a budgetary thing?

SERPAS: Yeah, it's a budget issue. ... It's a combination of money and getting the academy ready.

G: So with 150 cops gone, what's the size of the force now?

SERPAS: We're probably 1,386 or something like that. We'll get you the exact numbers.

[In an email the next day, NOPD communications director Remi Braden wrote that the department had 1,395 officers as of May 31, 2011 and 1,445 officers in May 2010 — a difference of 50.]

(UPDATE: After this story ran, NOPD contacted Gambit to say the initial email was incorrect. The department had 1,539 officers in May 2010, and 1,386 officers in May 2011, for a total loss of 153 officers.)

G: The DOJ reports cited paid detail as one of the big issues and recommended setting up a single office to deal with them. That was in March. Where are we with that?

SERPAS: When Mayor-elect Landrieu and I interviewed in April 2010, one of the key points he and I talked about was a dramatic reformation of the paid detail system. So none of this is new. It's been going on for quite some time. So in the summer of 2010 and in the fall of '10, we were working with the DOJ, and we had visits from another police department that had a paid detail system we took a look at. We looked at paid detail systems around us.

  And we also created for the first time some real data. You know, we never had any idea the size of the paid detail system in New Orleans. So we created this system of capturing how many hours a day people were working. Essentially, when the report came out in the middle of March, the mayor said, look, I need you to tell me what you want to do with paid details.

  The key features we outlined are a combination of the things we think are best practices — a combination of things we think the DOJ and the inspector general think are important points. And it's a starting point. And we need to not lose sight of that. It's a starting point. We probably have now 45,000 shift entries since Dec. 1. It is a much bigger thing than anybody thought. So there's no reason to create a central office until you knew how big the problem was going to be. You don't even know how to begin to staff it. Now that we're getting closer to that, we still have to create a plan with the Department of Justice for the consent decree. ... All of this is going to be part of the consent order. So it has to be done in conjunction with what the DOJ is willing to work with.

  A paid detail in a consent decree — this may be the first one ever. It's really new ground for everybody.

G: The report was also concerned about use of force. And it recommended new policies and training to comprehensively address it. Has any of that begun yet?

SERPAS: Yeah. Part of our 65-point plan issued in August of 2010 discussed changes in the use of force, creating a use of force manual. Deputy Chief [Arlinda] Westbrook, Independent Police Monitor Susan Hutson and our team are in the process of finalizing a new use of force manual. We took a lot of information from the Los Angeles Police Department with the assistance of Ms. Hutson, who had been there, because they had that whole use of force issue in their consent decree. We began the staffing process for a use of force investigations team.

click to enlarge Serpas [back] with NOPD 8th District Commander Edwin Hosli at Mayor Mitch Landrieu's State of the City address. Hosli has been suspended without pay from the force while Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux investigates the Anytime Solutions case, in which an LLC owned by Hosli landed a lucrative contract to review traffic camera tickets. Since then, the traffic camera review has been brought back in-house on officers' regular desk time.
  • Serpas [back] with NOPD 8th District Commander Edwin Hosli at Mayor Mitch Landrieu's State of the City address. Hosli has been suspended without pay from the force while Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux investigates the Anytime Solutions case, in which an LLC owned by Hosli landed a lucrative contract to review traffic camera tickets. Since then, the traffic camera review has been brought back in-house on officers' regular desk time.

  The long-range goal of our policy is that the use of force reports will be reviewed, every single one of them, by the Public Integrity Bureau (PIB). And as part of our new strategy as well as what Los Angeles and others have been doing, if any use of force reports result in any reportable injury of any sort, then the PIB use of force team will actually go out and investigate it on the spot. Those are the key features of where we're going with use of force. Again, it's another issue that's going to have to be hammered out as part of the consent decree. We've been working on it for about 10 months.

G: When did you find out about the Anytime Solutions deal?

SERPAS: In March, when the [8th District] inspection report came in. That's part of what the inspector general was looking at. The fact that the city had been doing a paid detail [for traffic camera citations] for three years came to us probably in November. But the actual Anytime Solutions Limited Liability Company (LLC) came to my attention at the end of March, when I got the inspection report.

G: The Inspector General has cleared you personally of any wrongdoing in this case. But would you agree that setting up a company to outsource work that could have and should have been done on officers' work time is wrong?

SERPAS: There's no question we've got a couple of issues here. One, we have evidence now of many officers who created LLCs, which in and of themselves is not bad except that we don't want you to use them to manage paid details. And that's been on the books for quite a long time.

G: Is that one of those policies that just wasn't followed?

SERPAS: Absolutely. I've got a letter from an officer telling me that a deputy chief told him to set one up in 2009 to do that very same thing. So it's clearly a policy that was routinely ignored by those people who were in that type of work, if you will, the people, the handful of officers that do these coordinations of large details.

  Secondly, as to whether or not to use on-duty officers or off-duty officers to handle the red light cameras, clearly it's better if it's on duty. And that's been put in place. But sometime in 2008 a decision was made to make it a paid detail. And this is kind of the thing that's been lost in this whole red light camera thing. It's been a paid detail. What got lost in this whole debate is that it had been a paid detail for three years.

G: Some say that you have a credibility problem because the Anytime Solutions issue has affected people close to you. How do you respond to those who question your credibility on this?

SERPAS: I think the OIG (Office of Inspector General) responded for us. I mean, the OIG looked at it and said Serpas had no wrongdoing here. That meant I didn't have anything to do with selecting these people, I didn't have anything to do with whoever they picked. That was all done by the Department of Public Works.

  I think the question also that got a bit lost in the translation is we have 1,100 officers working paid details. And they've worked now nearly 40,000 or 45,000 entries [this year]. And I didn't ever want to know anything about paid details. I'm the first chief other than Richard [Pennington] who probably didn't work the Superdome or didn't oversee those paid details. I've been approached by a lot of people since I've been back, asking, 'Hey, Chief, do you want to run the Superdome detail?' Hell no. 'Well, do you want to run the Jazz Fest?' Hell no. 'Do you want to run the Arena?' Hell no.

  So for me, this is no part of what I want to be involved with. During the 10 years I was gone, I got very accustomed to a centralized office managing paid details that took care of all those issues. So the fact that I didn't know what two or three employees were doing with paid details, if it's a credibility issue, I apologize for that, but I don't keep up with that stuff. That stuff does not typically cross my desk.

click to enlarge NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas riding a mounted detail on Canal Street during Mardi Gras. Serpas interacts with the public on a regular basis, attending community crime forums and walking a monthly march against crime in various neighborhoods.
  • NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas riding a mounted detail on Canal Street during Mardi Gras. Serpas interacts with the public on a regular basis, attending community crime forums and walking a monthly march against crime in various neighborhoods.

G: And yet there are still people who feel that you haven't given a thorough enough explanation of how you did not know.

SERPAS: Oh, I gave an incredibly thorough explanation to the person who matters right now, and that was the Inspector General. I completely discussed the issues.

  I see the intuitiveness of it. But, you know, now that I have been forced to know more about this than I wanted to know, it turns out that one of the officers had been working paid details in and around the 8th District for years. And I'm very strong about this. And I know people may or may not agree, but when I'm off, I am not talking to my son-in-law, who is not a ranking officer, about anything to do with this police department. I've been to my daughter's house three times in the 13 months I've been back in the city working as the chief. That's just not what I do when I'm off.

G: The money involved in reviewing the tickets was $35-$55 an hour. We found that a detail on a movie set typically runs about $25 an hour, and even captains who work Superdome details make $39 an hour. Why was the Anytime Solutions contract so much higher for what seems like easier work?

SERPAS: At the end of the day, the 'coordination fee' has to end because we don't want that going on with the officers anymore. The $35 per hour fee for the officers had been in place since 2008, as far as I know. I don't want coordination fees because I think that's really the biggest issue we needed to overcome. Part of the centralized office is that there won't be coordination fees by the officers.

G: Have you seen the setup for the system of reviewing the red-light camera photos? Was it set up by someone in Commander Hosli's garage? Was it in his living room? Or was there an office somewhere?

SERPAS: Oh, I don't know. It's Internet-based, as far as I know. My understanding is that it was always set up where you would log into the site that actually holds the pictures.

G: So officers would look at them remotely?

SERPAS: So you could look from anywhere, yeah.

G: So these people were not going [to Hosli's house] for the weekends?

SERPAS: No. Oh, no, no, no, no.

G: I think that's a misconception of the public, then, was that there was an office, a physical office there.

SERPAS: No. From the very beginning the vendor made it possible that people could dial in remotely from anywhere from passwords and stuff and see the films. I don't know, I've never done it. But I guess they would check off on each one, whatever they were supposed to do. And then that process is on its way. As far as I know, there was never one place where you had to sit and do it. It was always Internet-based.

G: But there will be a central office for reviewing tickets going forward?

SERPAS: Right now our officers who are the traffic officers, we gave them access in their district stations to go online.

G: Remotely?

SERPAS: Yeah, they all do. And then the supervisors get kicked the tickets that people can't make decisions on. And they have to approve those. They're the only ones that can do that. Modern technology.

G: Have you had any conversations with Commander Hosli since this issue arose?

SERPAS: Oh, no. He's under investigation. I can't talk to him about this stuff; absolutely not.

G: Setting up LLCs to handle paid details clearly seems to be a direct violation of NOPD policy. Is that something that people get fired over?

SERPAS: No, not under our policy. Our policies and discipline are based on a matrix that's been around for almost 15, 20 years now.

G: Is there a timetable for when this new central office will be set up?

SERPAS: It's part of our continuing dialogue with the Department of Justice and part of the consent decree.

G: In 1996 your mentor and friend, Richard Pennington, promised the City Council that he would cut New Orleans' murder rate in half in three years if given more resources. He got the resources, including a pay raise for police officers, and kept his promise.

  Could you make the same promise today?

SERPAS: Things were completely different in 1996. 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, which is why we decentralized. So we anticipated that we could get a greater reduction in some of the violent crimes by having better coordination, and that turned out to be true.

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  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. So we estimated in '96 when we decentralized and took those cases and made them a responsibility of someone who would have to go do the follow up, we anticipated that would help us reduce the murder rate.

  We also anticipated that we were starting some groundbreaking domestic violence work that had not been done anywhere in the nation at that time. And we know that there's some predictability that you might be able to interrupt some of the domestic violence murders if you have a very aggressive investigative strategy.

  The other thing is, we had 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. So our estimation of a 50 percent reduction of murder was based on some pretty solid analysis that turned out to be true.

  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. We do have a fairly robust domestic violence system that could be more robust, and it's a staffing question. And you want to put more people in all these assignments. But we've lost over 150 people since I'm back. So you've really got to start weighing those issues. ...

  So I don't know if you can get the same 50 percent reduction when the advancements that we made in American policing in the mid '90s have not seen another iteration that was so groundbreaking. The best analogy I can think of is, we are more likely to be a very good offensive pulling guard in the fight against murder. We're not the quarterback. We're not the wide receiver. We're not going to be the big playmaker. The big playmaker in reducing murder in any community is changing family dynamics, changing economic opportunities, changing educational achievement. Those are the big playmakers in reducing murders, no question about it. The sociology on that is clear. The criminology on that is clear. We're a good offensive guard. We need to do our work right. But we've got a lot of other players.

G: Since last year the murder rate hasn't changed appreciably.

SERPAS: As of today [June 6] there's 90 murders this year compared to 90 murders last year. It's a crime that continues to require a tremendous amount of attention. But I think my analogy best explains it. We have to be very good at what we're doing. But the big playmakers are the other parts of the system.

G: There's a real fear that crime is spiking Uptown — armed robberies, burglaries, sexual assaults. What's being done about that?

SERPAS: I hope we can give context — to every robbery victim, it's 100 percent up for them. And we understand that. But January, February, March and April, there were tremendous reductions in robberies in the 2nd District and throughout the city. In May we had a spike in these robberies. Commander [Darryl] Albert and his team did a tremendous job responding to it, put a lot of extra boots on the ground. And then from May 23 until today there have been two robberies. One involved a prostitution date, and then the one we had Sunday (June 5) on Marengo Street, which is clearly a 'stranger' robbery.

  So the context of it is, the 2nd District and the city was experiencing dramatic double-digit reductions in robbery all the way up until the 2nd District had the spike.

  We're estimating right now, citywide, we're about 22, 24 percent down in armed robberies for the year, and we're down about 18 percent in simple robberies for the year. So, for every robbery victim, it's 100 percent up for them, and we understand that. But across the city it's actually trending down nicely.

G: On the issue of community outreach, last time we spoke you emphasized the El Protector program: outreach to the Hispanic and Vietnamese communities.

SERPAS: Jan. 1 we put the two officers in place. One is in the Hispanic community; the other is in the Vietnamese community. Through the gracious assistance of the Police Foundation and some grant funds that the New Orleans Crime Coalition and the Police Foundation was able to put together for us, at the end of May our El Protector team and the supervisor of those officers visited Nashville. And they spent a week up there getting some boots-on- the-ground kind of experience, how do you set these things up.

G: What sort of outreach have you done. other than the El Protector program, to reach out to the Spanish-speaking community?

SERPAS: I do radio shows. I make myself available to different events. I've worked with Catholic Charities. We're about, what, 390 days into this administration. So we've still got plenty of ground to plow. But we're working on it every single day.

G: According to surveys, citizen satisfaction within the NOPD is up in every district except the 5th District. What are you doing to work on that?

SERPAS: Well, you know, we use that survey tool. The New Orleans Crime Coalition has agreed to do that every six months for us. And it's an incredibly important tool. ... In the 5th District, we had a lot of things going on in the St. Roch neighborhood. We had a lot of crime, and it spiked up very quickly. And Commander [Bernadine] Kelly at that time really got a hold of it and did some incredible work, even brought in some resources from the federal government. And we kind of turned that tide really quickly. But that perception remained strong. So I met with Commander [Christopher] Goodly, who has since taken over, and said, 'Look, here's what the people are thinking. Here's some strategies that you can use, and you can think up your own strategies.' And we look forward to the August report to see how it's changed.

  But here's the goody bar: We care enough to do it. I mean, the New Orleans Crime Coalition is gracious enough to fund this stuff.

G: What's the status of construction on a new 5th District station?

SERPAS: On the drawing board. The 7th District station should be done by the end of the summer, and the 5th District station is one of the many capital projects that have to be dealt with, especially in the wake of Katrina.

G: One question about the 3rd District. When you were here last — during the '90s — there was a cooperative endeavor agreement reached with the Levee District where the Levee Police were patrolling north of Robert E. Lee Boulevard. And NOPD was not — is not — patrolling there. Now that the Levee District is cutting back on cops, is NOPD — despite having fewer officers — ready to step in again to patrol those neighborhoods?

SERPAS: We have to. We don't have a choice. I don't think that we ever abandoned patrolling in general. ... We're responsible for everything at the end of the day. The Levee District's decisions will complicate perhaps some of our deployment packages.

  And these budget questions are more daunting than I think we've ever faced in our time. I've never seen, as I have in these last two or three years, how state and local government budgets are just dramatically different than they've ever been. And it's going to change the way we think.

G: Let's talk about salaries. What's the salary range for patrolmen, sergeants, and lieutenants, and do you think that they need to be adjusted?

SERPAS: My understanding is we probably are very close to the state police right now with our pay. And the state police is the highest. So, by and large, our salaries are not completely out of whack like they were in the '90s.

G: If police are paid more, what should the city expect to gain from that?

SERPAS: A better quality candidate. There is a small number of people in America who want to be police officers now, and they're mobile. And there's even a smaller number that you really want. So if you're not hiring quickly, if you don't have a compensation package that's strong, they're going to go wherever they're going to get hired.

  And then, on top of all that, the children we raised, the Xs and Ys ... we get young men and women who come in for the police service, and then they find out we were serious about working at night. We were serious about working on weekends. We were serious about working on holidays. And, oh, yeah, by the way, you could get killed. And over a period of time a lot of these young people are going to move on to something else.

G: But those have always been the facts. What's different about this generation?

SERPAS: The whole X/Y thing, that generation, they view the world completely different.

G: Their expectations are different?

SERPAS: Absolutely. They don't have the same limits. When I joined policing 30 years ago, I was going to be here for 30 years. The people who join today do not see that. That's not the way they've been raised. That's not the way they've been educated. ... Also, this will be the first time in American policing history where we have to change our models to meet the employee instead of the employee changing their models to meet us. That's a fact.

G: What's been your proudest moment — and your biggest disappointment — since you've been here as chief?

SERPAS: The biggest disappointment has been how the system just really came apart. When Richard [Pennington] came, we had examples of very bad people doing very bad things. But we also had systems that were working. What's different here now is that all the systems came off the track — the training system, the education of new employees, the education of existing employees, the disciplinary system, use of force, paid details.

G: What's the biggest reason all that came off the track?

SERPAS: It's about leadership. DOJ came here in the fall of '96, and they investigated this Police Department all the way until March or April 2004, when they sent a letter, saying 'You made changes we wanted, you made changes you wanted.' No consent decree, no court order, nothing. Sometime between that date and 2010, in a very short period of time, a lot of things went wrong. So we had good leaders, but the system of leadership, I think, failed.

G: What's been the department's biggest success since you returned?

SERPAS: How many of these men and women come to work and work hard every day. I mean, I get to see it. I go to roll calls. I walk on Bourbon Street. I walk on the parade route. When I see these young men and women doing the things that we ask them to do every day and doing it with pride and dignity and respect, and you see the survey results showing 33 percent in August of '09, 50 percent approval in August of '10, 60 percent in February of '11. And then you look at the individual officers' survey data, which says 74 percent of the time it was a professional exchange. I mean, those things bring me tremendous pride.

G: What do you expect to be bragging about next year when we do this?

SERPAS: I hope by next year we would have a finalized consent decree that tells us exactly what it is we need to do. I'm hoping that the consent decree will have been in place and we start making measurable progress that people can have faith and confidence in.

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