When Mitch Landrieu first took office as mayor of New Orleans, his immediate challenge was to jump-start the city's long-delayed recovery from Hurricane Katrina. The incompetence and corruption of his predecessor, the now-jailed former Mayor Ray Nagin, brought virtually all recovery efforts to a halt.
Recovery wasn't the only pressing issue confronting Landrieu. From the earliest days of his 2010 campaign, he talked about the long-standing problems of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and the need for federal intervention via a consent decree. While the inert post-storm recovery under Nagin had cast a pall over the city, Landrieu knew from the get-go that the city's physical recovery was low-hanging fruit compared to reforming NOPD.
The mayor and the feds signed a sweeping consent decree in July 2012, but implementing it has not been easy. To be fair, structural reforms and many policy changes are already in place, but changing the NOPD's culture requires buy-in — and a wholesale change in attitude — among rank-and-file cops.
There's the rub.
That message hit home last month when the city's Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a scathing report that exposed chronic — and scandalous — underreporting and/or mishandling of sex crimes by NOPD's Special Victims Section from 2011 through 2013. The OIG report alleged that five detectives routinely ignored, failed to investigate or downgraded more than 1,000 rape cases, including some instances of child sexual abuse. Those five detectives and two supervisors have been reassigned and are under internal investigation in the wake of the OIG report. They also may face criminal charges.
The report underscores a parade of scan-dals at NOPD in the past 15 years — and it tests the leadership of both Landrieu and new Police Chief Michael Harrison. The new chief did not preside over this scandal, but he has inherited it. Landrieu and former NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas, on the other hand, cannot escape responsibility for this debacle.
Serpas has been dogged by allegations of underreporting crime stats for much of his career, although he consistently has denied that cops under his authority were ever encouraged or allowed to downgrade incident reports. Whether he encouraged or tolerated downgrading no longer matters; what matters is that it occurred, not just once in a while but in significant numbers, while he was chief of police here.
The OIG report concludes that the five now-reassigned detectives did not write investigative reports for 86 percent of the 1,290 sexual assault or child abuse cases they were supposed to investigate from 2011 to 2013. There can be no justification for such a wholesale breakdown. Whether it's a case of lax oversight, laziness, incompetence or corruption — or some combination thereof — this scandal exposes a deep, dark institutional and cultural crisis at NOPD.
Landrieu and police brass now promise that nearly 300 of those cases will get a thorough review by a special NOPD task force, but for many victims — and for the public — the damage has been done. NOPD's many critics (and many citizens as well) now have one more reason not to trust the department.
This scandal lands in the mayor's lap not just because the buck stops with him, but also because Serpas is the police chief Landrieu wanted. That makes all of Serpas' sins the mayor's as well. Serpas retired months ago and now has a cushy teaching gig at Loyola University. In an interview with The Times-Picayune, he passed the buck down to sergeants and lieutenants — saying police chiefs have to rely on "layers of supervision."
That's a cop-out, but Serpas can get away with copping out now that he's ensconced in academia. Landrieu, not so much.
While the mayor can point to significant improvements at NOPD since he took office, including the arrest of more than 80 bad cops, the sex crimes scandal overshadows those gains. For Landrieu, cleaning up NOPD — not cleaning up after Katrina — will be the yardstick by which he is measured.