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Community Trust and the New Orleans Police Department

Janet Wilson

The public’s trust in the post-Katrina New Orleans Police Department is still a fragile commodity. But the men in blue and their leadership are attempting to re-engage the communities they serve.

The public purging of a few bad apples in the New Orleans Police Department has been the subject of numerous, unflattering front page stories in the past year. That—combined with the city’s ceaselessly rising level of violent crime—has forced the men in blue, from the top down, to search hard for better ways to “protect and serve.” Regaining the community’s trust will require even more diligence.

“There are some people who have never had a civil conversation with a police officer. Never once,” says the Reverend John Raphael, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church. “I’ve seen officers; and I think it’s sometimes out of frustration, that they’ve had drugs going on in this neighborhood. But, and that block right over there, next block. Everybody kinda sits out with the kids and their parents, they’re sitting out. And I’ve seen a police officer come though, take everybody on the block and write ‘em for loitering. This was recently; this was 2012. And they don’t realize you just ruined any chance of having a witness that’s gone talk to you.”

Raphael isn’t just a minister. He’s the son of the first African American police officer on the NOPD, and was himself on the force for 15 years before leaving to become a pastor. From his both-sides-of-the-badge perspective, he has a few observations for the current police chief.

“I would tell him, stay committed to the ideals and expectations that he has, that he came with, as far what a New Orleans police officer ought to be,” says Raphael. “One day, he was right back over there, where they rebuilt the projects, playing a little ball with the kids, ya know. That may not seem like much, but it’s a lot.”

Others, long-involved in community life, are also cautiously optimistic about the possibility of better relations between the NOPD and the people it serves. Baty Landis is the proprietor of the Sound Café, an arts-friendly coffee shop in the Marigny-Bywater area that is the headquarters for “Silence is Violence,” an organization founded in response to two high-profile post-Katrina murders.

“There really has been an improvement on the part of the NOPD when it comes to interacting with the culture communities of the city,” says Landis. “Specifically, the street cultural practices of New Orleans. Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Second-Line parades.”

Landis says there has been a strategic decision within the ranks of the police department to do a better job of interacting with the city’s unique cultural organizations. But, she says, it’s not yet perfect. “What really I’d like to see going forward is a dramatic increase in respectful treatment of every member of the New Orleans Community.”

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas says he’s aware of these public feelings, and has heard the same complaints many times. But he’s more comfortable with what his legacy as chief will be now than ever before.

“Here is the legacy I hope we have: that we can fundamentally alter the employment evaluation systems, the employment reward systems, to make the New Orleans Police Department a customer service agency, not a police agency,” Serpas says. “If you have professional interactions with citizens, and you treat your coworkers professionally, I might not care if you get work on time sometimes. Or I might not be as interested in how many arrests you make or how many cars you stop.”

What he will be interested in, Serpas says, is how people are treated by his officers.

“If we have a customer service orientation, we can grow as a community policing organization. We can deal with the occasional times when our job bumps up against peoples’ perceptions of their rights, and we can learn together,” he says. “In fact, maybe the officer didn’t violate your rights. Maybe the officer was just simply following the laws of the land that you might not have been familiar with. But, because he treated you like a professional, you’re less likely to be mad personally, and can get to the solution and can get to the resolution. That’s going to be the legacy, and I think we’re going to pull that off.”

But it’s actions, not words, that will be needed to convince a skeptical community.

“We’ve done four iterations of independent surveying of perceptions of police officer performance in the city of New Orleans,” Serpas says. Though the organization as a whole is suffering from poor perception by the people of the city, “at the individual officer level of satisfied service from a police officer, we’re hovering around 75% approval.

“We are rebuilding the police department one officer at a time; one interaction with a citizen at a time,” he continues. “We have great value there; we have a lot of positive news there, and a lot of positive movement there,” and the department will begin implementing independent surveys of residents to improve on that further.

“I’m going to find somebody who does this for a living; Gallup, Pew, whoever does polling data for a living. I’m gonna go to them and say, ‘Give me a valid sample design per employee, and then go out and call the people that they talk to, and ensure that our messages of professionalism, our messages our customer service were being acted upon.”

Serpas says the New Orleans Police Department is committed to that process, and is adopting the same concepts and models of improvement that Fortune 100 companies have successfully implemented in the past.

“On one axis is performance, on one axis is attitude,” he says. “All employees ought to be good at both, and we should strive for that. But we are going to shift the New Orleans Police Department from a department that allows performance to be superior to one that allows attitude to be. We’re gonna flip that whole dynamic, and attitude will always be superior to performance.”

Join in the discussion! Vote and comment on this story below, and tell us what you think about the New Orleans Police Department and its relationship with our community.

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WWNO has lost a dear member of its community in Sharon Litwin, co-founder and president of NolaVie. She passed away Friday, June 24, 2016. Read a tribute to Sharon on NolaVie.com.

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