Nobody has a stronger survival instinct than a politician, so it's surprising to see new Mayor LaToya Cantrell cling to an idea that threatens her political viability in an existential way. I'm talking about her refusal to abandon — publicly and unequivocally — the notion of hiring former New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley as her "director of homeland security and public safety."
The title is a new one created by Cantrell. If it sounds like an amped-up police commissioner, well, that's exactly how Cantrell describes it.
Which is what makes her continued talk of filling that position with Riley so surprising — and so dangerous to her own political survival.
Cantrell told The New Orleans Advocate on May 10 that the director would oversee the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), the New Orleans Fire Department, Emergency Medical Services and the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness — in effect, a public safety czar, which probably suits Riley just fine.
Riley was not known for his light touch when he served as police chief under now-jailed former Mayor Ray Nagin. He is, however, remembered for claiming not to know anything about the police cover-up of the Danziger Bridge shootings. Danziger occurred days after Hurricane Katrina, before Riley became chief, but the cover-up happened right under his nose. He claimed at the time not to have read the investigative report on the matter.
Several cops went to federal prison for their roles in the shootings and subsequent cover-up. The shootings left two people dead and four others wounded — and cost the city at least $11 million in legal settlements. The cover-up scandalized NOPD and still haunts the victims' families.
The Danziger scandal alone should disqualify Riley for any position in city government, particularly one that would put him over NOPD again. There are other reasons, all of them summarized in the $55 million federal consent decree that has governed many of NOPD's standards and operations since Riley departed. To put it bluntly, Riley left NOPD in such bad shape that it took federal intervention to turn it around.
And a lot has turned around at NOPD, so much so that many were hoping U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan would soon consider lifting the decree — until Cantrell raised the specter of putting Riley back in charge. No way now.
Despite the public outcry against hiring Riley, Cantrell can't seem to let go of the idea. She tried to mediate meetings between Riley and the Danziger victims' families, but such attempts only make matters worse, some family members say. The mayor dismissively called the hue and cry against Riley's possible return an "uptick" that caused her to put his appointment on "pause."
It is astounding that Cantrell, who once agonized (and flip-flopped) over renaming a street in her former District B council district, could be so tone deaf to the dangers of hiring Riley. Putting him over NOPD again would be a slap in the face to her core constituency, to the federal judge overseeing the consent decree and to the families of the Danziger victims.
It also seriously would call into question her judgment — and make people wonder if she has a political death wish.