Stephanie Grace: Serpas era was a tough slog

When Mitch Landrieu was first elected New Orleans mayor in 2010, he said that selecting a police chief would be the most important decision he’d make. His choice, to nobody’s surprise, was Ronal Serpas, a New Orleans native who’d risen through the NOPD ranks, served at hugely successful superintendent Richard Pennington’s side and then left town to lead major organizations elsewhere in the country.

Four stormy years later, Serpas is moving on again, this time to teach at Loyola University. And the question in the air is this: Did Landrieu make the right choice?

Actually, that’s been the topic of some debate since the beginning of Landrieu’s administration.

Serpas didn’t get the warmest of homecomings. Instead, the very process the mayor used to hire him came under suspicion; some New Orleanians, including a few transition committee members who were quickly relieved of their duties, felt that the national search for a new chief was less than open or transparent. Landrieu, many felt back then, wanted what he wanted, and that was Serpas.

The ensuing years were equally bumpy. Landrieu at first welcomed a federal consent decree from the Justice Department’s civil rights division mandating strict reforms, but the relationship soon turned adversarial. Money was so tight that the city froze hiring and pay. Attrition, from retirements and resignations, was alarmingly high, and now that the spigot is back on, the city is struggling mightily to find qualified recruits. As of earlier this summer, there were some 400 fewer officers on the street than the city’s goal of 1,575. Four years ago, the total stood at 1,525.

And, of course, heartbreaking stories of children, teens and innocent bystanders dying violently continue to duel with statistics suggesting the city’s getting back on the right track.

Those statistics, including a reduced (but still high) murder rate, do exist, and they’re one of the reasons Landrieu can claim vindication in his choice. It’s not the only one.

Serpas has been tough on bad cops and has fired many, although he’s also been accused of vindictiveness toward those who didn’t get with the program. He’s instituted important reforms, such as requiring officers to wear body cameras, even as he’s sometimes tangled with the press over transparency — most recently over an officer-involved shooting that the department failed to disclose for several days.

Landrieu’s opponents in this year’s election vowed to fire the chief, but voters overwhelmingly opted for the status quo. It’s hard to consider the contest a real referendum, though, since neither Michael Bagneris nor Danatus King offered much detail on what they’d do differently, on crime or most other issues. Still, if Landrieu was hoping Serpas would be the second coming of Pennington, the hire fell short. Pennington served through former Mayor Marc Morial’s two terms, cracked down on crooked cops, emphasized statistics-driven and community policing, cut the murder rate drastically and emerged popular enough to run for the top job himself, although he quickly learned that his skills didn’t translate.

Still, Serpas didn’t get the benefit of the federal funding to hire cops (Pennington served during the flush Clinton years). Nor did he have latitude over some key policy areas. All the hubbub over restricting private security details that cops have long worked to supplement their pay, for instance, stems from the federal consent decree, which deemed the longstanding system an “aorta of corruption.”

So was Serpas the right choice, or could anyone else have done better under the circumstances? Hard to say.

His critics said they were glad to see him go, and hoped the next chief will do more to earn citizens’ trust. His fans lauded him as a reformer, even as they noted the external constraints on how much he could accomplish. City Council member Jason Williams, a criminal defense attorney by trade, said he and a majority of his peers were ready for a change. Landrieu himself didn’t say so, but he did little to dispel the impression that he was too.

Pennington faced down enormous, dramatic challenges. This time around, the job appeared to be more of a slow, frustrating slog. In the end, everyone just seemed to be suffering from a collective case of fatigue. And that included Serpas.

Stephanie Grace’s email address is sgrace@theadvocate.com.