When Mayor Mitch Landrieu named Ronal Serpas police chief last month, critics wondered if a third-generation NOPD cop was the right person to clean house in the troubled department. Supporters, including Landrieu, pointed to Serpas' steady — and rapid — rise through local and national law enforcement ranks, saying he had the potential to bring diverse experience and hometown knowledge to New Orleans police work.
Serpas joined the NOPD in 1980, rising to deputy chief under former Chief Richard Pennington before leaving in 2001 to become chief of the Washington State Patrol. In 2004, he accepted the top-cop position in Nashville, a city with twice the population of New Orleans, a much larger footprint and fewer officers. In February, Serpas claimed crime in Nashville had fallen to its lowest point in 20 years, a figure at odds with FBI numbers. Known for his self-confidence and love of statistics, Serpas argues that the FBI's stat-gathering is less exact than the method used by his department. The new chief is also quick to call out the media as well as his own officers if he thinks they aren't doing their jobs.
Gambit sat down with Serpas June 14 in his fifth-floor office at NOPD headquarters. Neither side pulled any punches.
GAMBIT: Nashville Mayor Karl Dean is asking for an independent audit of your crime stats, saying there are questions as to their validity. The FBI numbers, according to news reports, show crime was actually up in Nashville in 2008. How do you explain that discrepancy?
RONAL SERPAS: The Nashville Police Department was audited four times between 2004 and 2009, three times by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. The FBI audited the Nashville Police Department in 2007 as part of the audit of the TBI. ... I'm glad Mayor Dean called for it because it will be the fifth audit in five years.
G: Given that you are so publicly affiliated with COMSTAT under Chief Pennington and given that many people, including Gambit, feel the numbers were somewhat cooked back then by downgrading a lot of unsolved felony incidents to misdemeanors, what can you say and what have you done so far to assure citizens that crime stats under your watch as chief will be more accurate than they were 10 to 15 years ago?
RS: A, I'm not willing to accept that they were inaccurate 10 to 15 years ago. B, what we've done in Nashville was created some very, very sophisticated auditing systems. ... We called back 4,000 people in Nashville in five years. ... We're going to do the same thing here. We've actually already started working a program to do random callbacks, stratified by violent/nonviolent [crimes]. The Office of Inspector General graciously agreed to let his statistician create the package for us — how many people we have to call back by crime type. They have a meaningful, methodologically sound callback system that we'll do here. I've got the final draft on my desk. We're going to call back people and say, "Hi, this is so and so from Superintendent Serpas' office. I have a police report in front of me. I would like to read you your victim statement." And the question will be: "Is this what you said?" And that confirms it.
G: But what about classifying the crimes? How will you make sure unsolved felonies aren't simply downgraded to misdemeanors to make the stats look better?
RS: You're a journalist. You cannot tell me that every tip you get is what you write a story about. You have to use journalistic inquiry. You have to use collaboration. You have to use triangulation. Is it fair to say that when a news reporter gets a tip, oftentimes by the time they finish their investigation, that tip isn't exactly what they end up writing about?
RS: Do you think police reports are any different, rhetorically? Of course there's going to be change, because if a police officer is an investigator, not simply a report writer, and the police officer says, "I was called by the dispatcher on the call of a burglary, and when I got there, I found out that it was a murder," you would expect him to change the burglary to a murder, wouldn't you? Well, if a police officer gets to the site of a theft and finds out it's a burglary, why would we not want them to change the theft to a burglary? They've got it documented. It's got to be approved by supervisors.
So what I'm hoping we can establish with Gambit and all the media is no different than your journalism techniques. You start here; you may end up differently. You start here; you may end up exactly the same. But you have to document it in between.
The other thing that you've got to do is recognize that we follow the rules of the [FBI's] Uniform Crime Reports. We don't create our own rules. ... If you fast forward 15 years later, we have to do a lot of work with the public to explain these rules are not ours. Uniform crime reporting rules are theirs. They make us classify crimes in the categories that they want. And you'll see a difference [between local and FBI figures]. Doesn't necessarily mean people are cheating; it just means that different rules apply.
I am not going to ever say to the community that we're report writers and not police investigators. If a police officer investigates a crime and it's not what was dispatched, would we rather believe the dispatcher talking to somebody on the phone, or would we rather believe the outcome of a police investigation? Because they may be different.
G: When Ronal Serpas was hired as chief, there were some who said this is a guy who was part and parcel of COMSTAT. And COMSTAT created what was, on paper, a great program. But like any other human endeavor, it's not perfect. There's a pretty widely held view in the community among people who pay attention to these things that there was a lot of pressure on the district commanders to produce lower numbers. And one of the ways that the numbers got lowered was that crimes were downgraded from what they would normally have been before COMSTAT. Are we going to solve crime with a pencil and eraser, or are we going to solve crime by keeping bad people off somebody's front porch?
RS: We're going to solve crime by doing what's ethically legal and professionally correct. What the police officers determine from their investigations is going to be the outcome of their work, and then there are auditing systems that are going on behind the scenes to ensure that what they said they did, they did.
The thing that's of interest, I hope, to the readers is, we have evolved quite a bit in the last 12, 14 years. And I would disagree with you on one thing. I think [former UNO pollster] Susan Howell's independent polling data, which none of us had any control over, showed that people felt a whole lot less crime in New Orleans between 1994 and 2000. I'm not ready to walk away from that as you may be ready to walk away from that by saying crime was reduced by pencils. Obviously people felt different.
G: One crime you can't fudge is homicide. The police don't classify that; the coroner does, and homicides got cut in half under Pennington.
RS: I wish you would write more of that. ... The crimes that most criminologists tend to watch — homicide's one of them — but they also pay really close attention to burglaries and auto thefts, because over the last 40 years there's always been an insurance component in those two crimes. People tend to report those two crimes a lot. ...
This is what we're striving for: We want the community to report more crime to us. You can't write that enough for me. I am not wanting the community to report less crime.
The New Orleans Crime Coalition did a survey in August of 2009. Question Number 23: Were you or a member of your family the victim of a crime? Those who said yes to Question Number 23 were then asked Question 24: Did you report that to 911? Fifty-nine percent said they did. That meant some 40 percent didn't.
So I need the media to help get the message out to the community. Our (crime) maps are never going to be accurate because people aren't reporting everything. Our strategies of enforcement can't be as accurate as they could be if we had 100 percent of the crime reports. I would rather be on television tomorrow reporting a 100 percent increase in crime if I knew every single crime committed had [been reported]. I would welcome that opportunity.
So the idea that somehow or another this chief or this administration would want to reduce crime artificially stands in the face of the fact that we ain't getting it all anyway. What is the logical reason to reduce crime artificially when we know that we're about 50 percent accurate to begin with? What would be the logical reason to do that?
G: But in the '90s, when the numbers went down, there was a perception that a lot of reports weren't being filed.
RS: There's thousands of reports a year that get done right. And that's what we can't lose sight of. What about the thousands of times a day they got it right? Are all those numbers to be dismissed?
G: No, but if there were a lot of incidents where cops, being human, or lazy, or tired at the end of the day — or trying to keep the numbers down — didn't write them up, then the numbers that you are getting are not right. And that's on top of the 40 or 50 percent that didn't call in, which skews the numbers even more.
RS: Right. But ... this is a human enterprise. There's a margin of error. It's going to happen every day. I mean, Toyota can't even get cars' brakes to work right now. There's a margin of error.
The question is, is the margin of error being monitored? Is it being trained to? Is it being educated to? Is it being disciplined against? There is a 4 percent expected error. When the FBI comes down and does their quality assurance reports of police departments all across America, they know they're not going to get 100 percent accuracy. They're looking for accuracy that's statistically significant to say we can have some confidence in this.
I have come to learn — 15, 16 years later — the more important tool is independent surveying data that says how people feel, because there you're going to get better information. I'm more interested in what's the [district attorney's] acceptance rates of these cases. I'm interested in whether we are making the best effort to get officers to investigate crimes.
G: What do we tell a reader who calls and says, "I called the police and I asked for a report, and I didn't get a report done" — what are they supposed to do?
RS: Call us.
G: Call whom?
RS: Call the New Orleans Police Department, firstname.lastname@example.org. Call 658-5757. [Gambit called the number June 17. The operator referred us to 658-6800, which is the NOPD's Public Integrity Bureau.] That's what we're here for. We have people who do that. We're doing callbacks on people scientifically in a randomly stratified way so we can try to get the best information. Certainly if we have direct information, we want to act on it.
G: Let's shift gears. The ACLU on June 8 called for First Amendment training at NOPD, citing what it says were at least 15 incidents in which people were stopped or arrested simply for observing or documenting police misconduct. What response, if any, have you given to the ACLU, and what specifically will you do to cops who stop or arrest people for documenting police misconduct?
RS: I had a great relationship with the ACLU in Washington State and in Nashville. But the ACLU made that report and never sent it to me. They sent it to you first, the media. So I'm going to respond to it. The response I found out already is that the police officers receive First Amendment training while they're in the academy to tell them, "Look, you're public creatures. You're a public official. The work that you do is a public event." So we'll continue to exercise those trainings and exercise those issues. I want to have a positive relationship with the ACLU, just like I did everywhere.
G: But there is a definite perception that cops in New Orleans don't like people taking pictures if they're beating somebody up. There's a feeling that if the Rodney King beating had happened in Orleans, that tape would not have survived. What will your policy be if you see evidence that cops took away somebody's cell phone or somebody's camera or somebody's video camcorder at a scene where police might have been abusing somebody?
RS: They don't have a right to do that. They don't have a right to seize anybody's property, especially as a police officer, unless there's a criminal consequence. So if the person hasn't violated a criminal law and we took their property, that's against the law. They don't have a right to do that.
The point for me is this: Officers are going to continually be trained and updated. ... We are on the verge of instituting some policies here that are going to realign the department's expectations of truthful behavior. It's been very successful in other places, and we're going to do it here.
G: You've been up front about implementing more traffic stops for minor infractions in Nashville. Do you intend to do likewise in New Orleans?
RS: I was very up front in Nashville about using vehicle stops as a tool to advance law enforcement, public safety and crime fighting. And it was very successful there. ... Here in New Orleans, no less than 20 to 25 percent of all the murders committed in our city: how do you think they happened? Somebody was in their car, got out of their car with their gun, shot and killed somebody, got back in their car, and drove away. Or as they drove by in their car, they reached out the window and started shooting at people.
Vehicle stops have been a part of American policing since we've had cars. So has warrant service. ... Here's the most important thing about vehicle stops, though: Six years in a row of fewer people going to the hospital after being in an automobile accident. If that's not public safety, I'm not sure what is. Vehicle stops are just one of the many tools in the tool bag. It's not the only one. Actually I prefer warrant service, to be honest with you.
G: You also increased DUI arrests in Nashville, and there were complaints of a quota system.
RS: I don't believe in quotas, and I've never asked for them, except [with] DUI — we ought to find everyone we can. Legal, professional pursuit of drunk drivers saves lives. Period. I don't know anybody who can legitimately say they don't believe that. ... In some years, drunk drivers kill more than murderers.
One of the problems I've always had with the media is creating this image of murder as the crime you should be afraid of — it could happen to you tomorrow. Well, the truth of American murder is it's almost always someone who knew someone that they were mad as hell at. A drunk driver ought to have you shaking in your boots because that's the stranger you never laid eyes on who will annihilate your family. I take drunk driving very seriously because [preventing] it saves lives. But it's got to be legal; it's got to be professional.
G: Nashville cops busted your own son twice for DUI. How were those cases adjudicated?
RS: He was found guilty. And he did time in jail.
G: Did any of that affect your own thinking about addiction and/or DUI?
RS: Absolutely. He was addicted. He was horribly addicted. And his father's a policeman, his stepmother's a nurse, his mother's a nurse, and his sister's a nurse. He never acted out in front of us. When he got arrested the second time we all realized, "Wow, something's going on here." It's one of the things that makes me a better police chief. I've had two members of my wife's family killed by domestic violence, and my son was arrested for drunk driving twice. I used to read the data that talked about upwards of 24 to 25 percent of all drunk-driving arrests are people with alcohol problems who don't know it yet. Now I understand it, because my son never demonstrated that behavior in front of his family. We'd have a crawfish boil; he might drink a beer. He never obliterated himself in front of us. So for us, the DUI arrest was what cleaned him up. He's five years sober now with a 1-year-old baby, married three years.
G: DA Leon Cannizzaro wants to move minor marijuana cases out of Criminal Court and prosecute them as ticketed misdemeanors. Do you support that idea?
RS: Yeah, I am for it. ... [It's a] very efficient and effective way for most low level offenders who really aren't going to get in trouble too many times. It gets them in the system. They get themselves held accountable. And you're not sitting in the lockup for two or three hours. I support any use of police resources on an arrest decision that would keep them from having to go to lockup.
This segues into an important point: We are not going to be the police department that tells neighborhoods what we think is important for their policing needs. That's antithetical to community policing. Community policing is, you sit down with the neighborhood group and you say to them, "What is it that's bothering you? Here's what we think we can do to help. Here's the various tools that we have."
What we have to do is be responsive to what their problem is and tailor our response to them so that we do the one thing that makes us all come together — when they feel comfortable and confident with us. ... That's how you turn crime around in a community. You don't turn it around by throwing everybody in jail. You turn it around by the community exercising its own control. ... That's what it's all about — community policing in a nutshell.
G: Some citizens who do not have faith in NOPD reacted poorly to your selection as chief. What can you tell them, as a third generation cop taking over the New Orleans Police Department, to convince them that you're going to sweep out corruption and clean things up?
RS: I think first and foremost, the 21 years I've spent here, I had a chance to be on the ground and see some of the best days of the NOPD — and some ugly days. I saw how the department could respond, and I saw how the department could change, and I saw how the public could respond.
Secondly, I've been gone for nine years. In the nine years I've been gone, I have been the chief twice. I'm the most experienced police chief ever appointed in the history of New Orleans. When Richard [Pennington] came here, he had been a deputy chief. This was his first big job. You go down the line. I'm the first person to ever come here having actually been the chief twice, once in a state police agency and once in a major city twice the size of New Orleans in population. So I bring a whole different set of skills than what I left with.
The other thing, yeah, I spent 21 years on the police department, but I spent all my life here. I went to public school here. I dropped out of public school here. I grew up behind the old ice house on Gentilly Boulevard. I know people in New Orleans. I know New Orleans. I'm not, like, coming from Berkeley, Calif., wouldn't know where Louisiana was except on a map. So my message to the public is, what I've learned since I've been gone has advanced me a lot further than when I left.
G: The cover up and guilty pleas in the Danziger Bridge case — and now the indictments in the [Henry] Glover case — confirm the worst fears of many black citizens that NOPD has a significant number of rogue cops who cover up for each other. How do you intend to gain the trust of the African-American community, specifically?
RS: Several things. One, working through everything we can do to assist the Department of Justice Criminal Division to clear out all these cases and take them to wherever they lead. If there's anybody else left in this department who had anything to do with those cases, we need to do everything humanly possible with [U.S. Attorney] Jim Letten and his office to root them out of this organization. There's no room on this train for them.
The second thing is openly embrace the Department of Justice intervention, which we have. Mayor Landrieu's call for that was perfect, because the Department of Justice can help point out to the community things that the NOPD does well, things that the NOPD could do better, and things the NOPD should not be doing at all. And we will embrace every one of those recommendations.
Working closely with the independent police monitor and OIG are two concrete things that weren't here before. They are now. [Independent Police Monitor] Susan Hutson and I have a great relationship already started. And I'm going to do everything I can to work with her closely to make sure that, to use her words, she can help demystify the process. And we are not going to have any closed doors over here.
The fourth thing is how we behave, how we go out there every day and reinforce in the minds of police officers through leadership that every single contact is an opportunity to make a supporter and a friend — every time we talk to anybody, even when we're arresting them. You don't have to call people out of their name. You don't have to do those things. It doesn't get you any further down the road, and it's really kind of jejune and television policing. That's not what this is about. So that's through leadership and taking roll calls and showing up on scenes and then imposing some disciplinary practices that are rational and sound and based on integrity.
For example, in the city of Nashville in the summer of 2004, we implemented a policy that if you're untruthful in the workplace, you're terminated — presumptive termination, no progressive discipline. We prevailed at the Tennessee Court of Appeals in January 2010 [after] we fired a police officer for being late and lying about it. That's what we're going to do here.
G: You were former chief Richard Pennington's right hand guy. Have you spoken to Chief Pennington since you took this job, and what advice, if any, has he given you?
RS: Oh, yeah. Richard and I have maintained a relationship over all these years. ... I've talked to him since I've been here. His advice is the same that we've given each other or that we give other people: Keep your nose to the grindstone, keep your facts straight, keep your focus on service, and go to work. That's what we do.