In the 1989 film Lean On Me, Morgan Freeman plays "Crazy Joe" Clark, a former teacher who is brought back to a deeply troubled New Jersey high school that has fallen into a morass of drug dealing, assaults and lawlessness. The situation is so dire that the state has threatened to take over the school, and the installation of "Crazy Joe" as principal is the mayor's last-chance, Hail-Mary pass to institute reform. When Clark's first move is to throw out several hundred habitual troublemakers, angry parents confront him in a hostile assembly. Clark is unmoved. "They say one bad apple spoils the bunch," he says. "But what about 300 — rotten to the core?"
"Crazy Joe" and his school of bad apples bear more than a slight resemblance to New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas and the NOPD — down to the prospect of a federal takeover and Mayor Mitch Landrieu's description of the department (in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder) as "one of the worst police departments in the country."
While Joe Clark used a baseball bat and a bullhorn to clean up his school, Serpas on Aug. 23 unveiled his own toolkit for overhauling NOPD: a detailed 65-point plan for community policing and transparency. Those buzzwords often lack real-world meaning, but Serpas has already moved on several fronts to give them substance and truth, even before producing his 65-point plan.
Shortly after Serpas took office, he instituted weekly COMSTAT meetings, open to the public, where district commanders responded to questions and were held accountable for reducing crime in their areas. Serpas has replaced the leadership of the Central Evidence and Property Division and reorganized NOPD leadership to put more officers on the street. In July, he canned 38 civilian employees and dismissed a dozen recruits in what was mostly a cost-cutting move, but NOPD spokesman Bob Young acknowledged the cadets who were let go were not performing to Serpas' satisfaction.
The chief also is looking to other police departments for ideas. He wants a gun-offender registry, designed after a successful model in Baltimore, to track criminals who commit crimes with firearms. Next year, he plans to establish a program called "El Protector," which originated in California, to reach Spanish-speaking populations, and — given the makeup of New Orleans — he's considering a Vietnamese version as well. And from Phoenix, he's adapting the idea of citizen volunteers for people who want to work with the NOPD.
Not every tool in his arsenal will be popular. Serpas' aggressive use of traffic stops as a crime-fighting tool began almost immediately after he returned to New Orleans. He also has stepped up the practice of nighttime roadblocks where officers check for licenses, registrations, proof of insurance and sobriety levels. Some New Orleanians have complained, but the roadblocks have been set up all over town, in neighborhoods rich and poor, black and white. After years of complaining about a lack of proactive policing, the public is finally getting some, and as long as Serpas and his officers administer the checks fairly, with respect for both the law and for citizens' dignity, he deserves the chance to try what he claims was a very successful program in his last job as Nashville, Tenn.'s top cop.
Most of all, New Orleanians want a chief who is willing to tell his subordinates, as Serpas did Aug. 23, "[From] September 1 forward — if you lie, you die. If you tell this police department a lie about anything, you will be terminated. If you allow a false or inaccurate report to be created under your name, you will be terminated." Serpas was quick to acknowledge it wasn't likely to be popular with some of the rank and file, to which he said, "If anyone cannot embrace these needed changes, we will replace them with dedicated police professionals who will."
To be successful in the community-based policing model he's sworn to adopt, Serpas must first win back the trust of citizens who, quite rightly, feel that a good number of NOPD officers cannot be trusted. Rooting out those bad apples and restoring that trust is Job One. We wish the chief success.