NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Post-Katrina scandals have abated and the homicide rate dropped markedly last year, but violent crime still plagues New Orleans and challenges abound for the person who ultimately replaces police chief Ronal Serpas.
Serpas, the city native and career police officer who took over the department in 2010, announced his retirement Monday at a news conference with Mayor Mitch Landrieu. He is joining the faculty at Loyola University of New Orleans' Criminal Justice Department.
For now, at least, his duties fall to Michael Harrison, the commander of the city's 7th police district. Harrison's biography includes nearly 24 years with the police department, and a stint in the Louisiana Air National Guard. He also is an ordained minister, according to the city.
"Mayor Landrieu has made it clear, murder reduction remains a top priority," Harrison said during the news conference at City Hall.
Homicides dropped in 2013 to a nearly three-decade low, but headline-grabbing violent crime continues. There was, for instance, last year's mass shooting at a neighborhood Mother's Day parade and a June 29 gunfight on Bourbon Street that killed a bystander — a young woman visiting from Hammond, Louisiana.
The department, meanwhile, is suffering a manpower shortage, down from about 1,600 officers to fewer than 1,200.
Landrieu and Serpas have pushed reform efforts while under a federal court order to clean up the department — the results of a Justice Department investigation they invited. Critics of those efforts say the mayor and police chief have hurt morale and contributed to an exodus of officers.
"It will be disguised as a morale issue, but it's really just resistance to change," Serpas said.
Monday's change of command was announced abruptly and led to questions about whether Serpas, 54, was pressured to leave. 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 Serpas' 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 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.
Landrieu named Serpas as chief shortly after taking office in May 2010. At the same time, the new mayor invited a thorough U.S. 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 the 2012 "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.
"Chief Serpas knew what he was getting into when he left Nashville," Goyeneche said. "He came here not to win a popularity contest but to do a job."
Goyeneche added that investigations improved under Serpas, enabling prosecutors to make better cases.
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 under Landrieu and Serpas.
But Hessler also added that Serpas was hamstrung by the city's budgeting policies, which included a hiring freeze early in Landrieu's tenure.
Serpas has had 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 the French Quarter gunfight.
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 to oust 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 he had begun making retirement plans after Landrieu was re-elected this year.
Landrieu said Harrison, 45, is in the running to permanently replace Serpas.