New Orleans Police Chief's Best May Not Be Good Enough

11/09/2011 01:34 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2012

I'll never forget February 6, 2010. I had just lost the New Orleans Mayor's race. I was, however, at peace with my loss. I had run an honest, aggressive issues based campaign. Later that evening, my calm resolve was overcome by anger and frustration. When my then fiancée, Melissa Harris-Perry, and I arrived home we were greeted by police cars and sirens because a shooting had occurred almost directly in front of our home.

Three weeks ago, my neighbors and I were unsettlingly reminded of that event. Again, only footsteps from my front door, violence seized the evening. A 22-year-old man was shot in the face and thigh on my neighbor's front porch. 

On Halloween night, my wife and I strolled the French Quarter, admiring costumes. We departed the corner of Bourbon and St. Louis only 15 minutes before gunfire erupted. Eight people were shot. One was left dead. Were we only slightly delayed, my wife or I could have been one of the deceased. As the night progressed 16 people were shot, two of whom died.

In March of 2011, the combined findings of two Department of Justice reports were that New Orleans is the most murderous City in America with a murder rate that is 10 times higher than the national rate. I estimate that if we continue our average of more than 16 murders per month, we may end 2011 with nearly 200 murders. This would shatter both local and national historical per capita murder records.

Something must be done, but we need more than just random action, we need real results. The long-term key to making our city safe lies in addressing root causes of crime such as education, poverty, health, safe housing, and economic opportunity. Mayor Landrieu's efforts in this area are to be applauded. Among other things, he has doubled funding for recreation programs and provided employment to large numbers of New Orleans teens.

But those efforts need to be components of an overarching strategy. They require the compliment of an efficient, sophisticated policing effort that targets violent criminals. Respectfully, Police Chief Ronal Serpas is failing on this front. Serpas' tenure has suffered from low expectations and ethical shortcomings.

Key to lowering the murder rate in the short term, is targeting known violent criminals. Consider the recent spat of murders by Telly Hankton and his gang, well in advance of the murders, it was clear that Hankton and of his cohorts had lengthy criminal records, some of which included prior arrests for alleged murder. Two years ago, Police Chief Riley referred to Hankton as one of the most dangerous men in New Orleans. The Police department should have targeted Hankton and people like him with aggressive investigation and interference. Every direction Hankton or his affiliates turned, there should have been officers ready and waiting to make arrests for any major or minor infraction. Making it difficult for murderers to move or operate would have the dramatic effect of lowering the murder rate in the short term while we await results from Mayor Landrieu's long term strategies.

Regrettably, Chief Serpas has targeted non-violent crime like prostitution and graffiti, but regrettably, he has failed to demonstrate an ability to lead an effort to target murders in New Orleans.

Serpas' goal is to reduce New Orleans' murder rate by 5%.  While any drop in murders would be an accomplishment, 5% is a listless uninspiring goal. Consider that Serpas' former boss and predecessor, Chief Richard Pennington committed to reduce the murder rate by 50% in three years or resign. Pennington achieved that goal reaching what still stands as New Orleans' lowest murder rate in two decades.

The belief that Serpas was disengaged from management of the department has been buttressed by the fact that at least four of his hand picked police commanders have been investigated, suspended or forced to resign for offenses ranging from the aforementioned contract profiteering to ordering officers to racially profile during the New Orleans Essence Festival.

The impact was quantified in an October poll. The New Orleans Crime Coalition found that more than half of New Orleanians were displeased with the NOPD's performance. 63% of respondents had reservations about the NOPD's integrity. 54% questioned the NOPD's competence. On Friday, October 21, Chief Serpas penned a letter to the editor challenging the poll reporting as biased. But on the evening Serpas argued that public perception was better than reported, four people were shot, including the shooting on my block. There were three murders the night before. Perhaps Serpas time would have been better spent leading the NOPD rather than defending it.

The Chief has repeatedly argued that he is doing his best to confront violent crime. If this is true, then it may be time to concede that Chief Serpas' best may not be good enough.

As we face the challenge of lowering violence in our City, we must remember, this moment is not unique. Despite America's struggling economy, crime and murder are down in most American cities. And let us not forget, in the 1990s New Orleans was the murder capital of the Nation. But among other things, solid leadership at the New Orleans Police Department, played a key role in reducing our murder rate by more than 50%. We did it before and we can do it again. But having the right leadership is essential to our success.