NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Four years after taking over the scandal-plagued New Orleans Police Department, Ronal Serpas is stepping down as chief with a mixed legacy: Homicides are at the lowest level in decades, but spates of deadly violence threaten the tourism-dependent city's image.
Monday's abrupt retirement announcement raised questions about whether Serpas, 54, was pressured to step down. It came the week after he acknowledged the department had failed to release news about an officer-involved shooting for two days. Furthermore, a new City Council member has said there is increasing dissatisfaction with his job performance.
Serpas said he was not leaving under pressure and ticked off a list of accomplishments including the decrease in homicides, a beefed-up homicide unit and the formation of an anti-gang task force that includes state and federal officials. He also took credit for helping Mayor Mitch Landrieu rebuild a force that was reeling in 2010 from revelations of deadly police violence in the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"Between 2005 and 2010, the train had come off the tracks," Serpas said during a news conference with Landrieu and the new interim police chief Michael Harrison, a 19-year department veteran and currently a district commander.
Landrieu named Serpas as chief shortly after taking office in May 2010. At the same time, the new mayor invited a thorough Justice Department probe of the police force. Federal investigators already were digging into the post-Katrina shootings of unarmed people at the city's Danziger Bridge and the death of Henry Glover, who was shot by a police officer and whose body was later burned in a car by another officer.
The result of the federal probe was a 2012 court-backed "consent decree" in which the city agreed to a host of changes in policies governing hiring, training, discipline, procedures for use of violence and several other elements of police work. A federal monitor is overseeing compliance.
Landrieu and Serpas began reforms even before that framework was in place. Rafael Goyeneche, head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a private law enforcement watchdog group, credits Serpas with making changes in a corrupt police department culture, including zero tolerance when officers are caught in a lie.
Goyeneche added that investigations improved under Serpas, enabling prosecutors to make better cases.
"He rebuilt the relationship between police and prosecutors into a much more effective relationship," Goyeneche said.
Critics say the consent decree and city policies under Serpas, including changes in the department command structure, have led to a decline in morale. Eric Hessler, attorney for the Police Association of New Orleans, is among strident critics of new policies in which a new city office governs the hiring of off-duty officers for private security details.
"It's not in better shape than it was when they got there," Hessler said of the department. But Hessler also added that Serpas was hamstrung by the city's budgeting policies, which included a hiring freeze earlier in Landrieu's tenure that led to a shortage of officers. The department once had about 1,600 officers and now has fewer than 1,200.
Serpas has gotten some help lately from state police. About 50 troopers were pulled from neighboring areas or from other duties within the city to temporarily beef up patrols after a gunfight broke out in the French Quarter on June 29, killing one woman, a bystander visiting from nearby Hammond. Troopers helped nab two suspects in a more recent drive-by shooting that killed a man and a teenage girl while leaving a mother and two small children seriously wounded.
But continued gun violence has some city officials on edge. "We have more shootings than ever," new City Council member Jason Williams said on a recent Web-based interview program, during which he said there was growing support among council members to replace Serpas.
Serpas began his police career in New Orleans in 1980, leaving to head Washington state police in 2001 and later leading the Nashville department. He said Monday that he had already begun making retirement plans after Landrieu was re-elected earlier this year. He expressed pride in his rebuilding of the New Orleans department and said he was retiring now because a new job opportunity arose. Loyola University in New Orleans announced later that Serpas would join the faculty at its Department of Criminal Justice.
Harrison, meanwhile, appears to be under strong consideration as Serpas' permanent replacement.
"Possession is nine-tenths of the law," said Landrieu, who praised the 45-year-old Harrison and gave no timetable for naming a permanent successor.