New Orleans has always been a part of Ronal Serpas. It is evident in the way he accentuates certain words, in the way he worked references to his hometown into all manner of public addresses during more than six years as Nashville’s police chief.
When his name appeared along with five others as finalists for superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department several weeks ago, it seemed not only a natural fit but a lock for the third-generation New Orleans cop to go home and try to turn around the floundering ship that is the NOPD, which very likely could see the feds step in after at least eight cases alleging civil rights violations against the department.
The decision to leave Nashville wasn’t easy for Serpas, particularly as the announcement came the week of the devastating floods across Tennessee. But the lure of home and the challenge of fixing its broken department drew him away from the city he said he’s become attached to over the years.
Serpas — whom colleagues called a highly intelligent, larger-than-life change agent who could shift from class clown to head of the class in a flash — undeniably left a large impression here, even while alienating many of the officers he led.
With his exit to the Crescent City, the chief leaves behind a big, blue uniform to fill. His replacement likely won’t be named for several months due to the flood recovery. That extended timeframe might be long enough for Serpas’ replacement to fully consider the wake he or she would swim into.
Serpas spent most of his tenure here in the short-sleeved version of the Nashville blue, and at news conferences, it was usually him towering over the others present, neatly parted brown hair, arms crossed in the front, a large-print black digital watch on his wrist that belied his six-figure salary.
When his turn at the microphone came, the tone of the conference usually changed with a man who obviously felt comfortable commanding a room.
“I’ve often said that he’s larger than life — literally in some cases — but his personality is very large,” said Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall. “He does command attention. He’s the first chief in many, many years to wear a uniform every day and is very visible in that way. When he walks in a room, I think people are drawn to what he has to say.”
Serpas also cut up with colleagues, such as during the mayor’s budget hearings at the end of March. As the sheriff took questions from the media following his presentation to the mayor, it was the chief sticking his mug between the TV cameras, making faces at Hall and trying to rattle his composure before viewers at home.
District Attorney Torry Johnson, who worked closely with Serpas, said his outsize personality, fitting his large physical presence, was mostly a good thing. But with that personality came a confidence in his own ideas that gave many of those under him the impression that it was the chief’s way or no way, and there would be little room for input.
“I think probably some of his initiatives within the police department could have been communicated better to the rank and file,” Johnson said. “He gets ideas and pushes forward, and I think he gets impatient when things are not done quickly. But sometimes I think taking a little extra time may have improved everybody’s understanding of where he was trying to go.”
In an email to The City Paper, interim chief Steve Anderson agreed with Johnson’s take.
“I think he would tell you that his lack of patience is something that he constantly struggles with as he attempts to maintain an appropriate balance in allowing practices and procedures to be fully developed prior to implementation, while at the same time ensuring that there are no undue delays,” Anderson said.
Hall gave Serpas high marks for being visible in the community and representing the police department to Nashville’s citizens.
“But anytime you come from the outside and are asked to make change, which is what [former] Mayor [Bill] Purcell wanted when they hired him, that usually comes at a cost internally to the morale and to the folks who have done it a different way,” Hall said.
After taking the reins as Nashville’s police chief in January 2004, Serpas pushed his commanders out from the downtown headquarters and into the precincts and neighborhoods to increase communication between those affected by crime and those fighting it.
He also brought the CompStat system he helped implement while serving as chief of operations at the NOPD. The system maps crime statistics and was used to drive department accountability in the neighborhoods.
Early on, that meant increased traffic stops, and in turn tickets, frustrating many citizens and leading to some dismay from the patrol officers charged with implementing that vision.
“Officers weren’t exactly clear as to why we were doing some of the things we were doing,” said Robert Weaver, president of the Nashville Fraternal Order of Police.
He said while the chief believed increasing quality traffic stops that pulled drivers over for even the smallest broken taillight could serve to fry bigger fish — the idea being that those stops could turn up guns, drugs, a wanted felon or even serve as a teachable moment for bad drivers — that message didn’t really trickle down to those officers on the streets, some of whom believed they were being pushed merely to write more tickets and make more stops to drive up positive data.
That message appeared to clear up in later years, but not before rubbing some officers and citizens with the sentiment that Metro officers had nothing better to do than write tickets.
Even though Serpas never said the department had been doing its job the wrong way, Weaver said the change of course could have been misinterpreted as such.
In March, the FOP released its own 25-item survey mailed out to 1,113 of its members. Of those sent out, 348 were returned. The FOP said the survey showed low morale in the department’s ranks.
But in a written response, Serpas pointed out that only 27 percent of presently active officers responded to the survey, and more than 15 percent of the respondents rated morale at the department as medium or good.
“I think all large organizations have issues with communicating, and you know, we all can learn from that,” Serpas told The City Paper at the time. “The FOP survey even said that the FOP needed to do a better job … everybody’s got that problem.”
Serpas called the survey a positive tool that led to more cooperation between the department and officers to “tease out all of the issues of discipline.” Nearly 90 percent of those who took the survey felt there was a double standard in the way the department dished out disciplinary action, with the higher-ups receiving lesser punishments.
“I think it turned out to be a great opportunity for both of us to do better work at understanding and crime fighting,” Serpas said.
Two Serpas trademarks changed the course of the police department: decentralization (by moving commanders into the precincts and closer to the neighborhoods for which they were responsible), and the numbers-crunching CompStat approach to crime.
“Certainly, I’ve gotten the moniker, if you will, of being data driven — and I am,” Serpas said. “But I’m data driven in the regard that, when I go into the neighborhoods, I hear people tell me that they feel safer or they feel more confident in their police department, that’s the most important data point that there is.”
Even though these models aren’t in jeopardy of disappearing anytime soon, interim chief Anderson wrote, “There must be a complete recognition that the police department must not define itself as it exists today. Each of the practices and procedures of the police department must continually be refined so as to better serve our city, its residents and visitors.”
As for unfinished business, the chief left on the table plans for two new police precincts, a new DNA crime lab, and the completion of the Advanced Records Management System, meant to allow officers to view mug shots, perform background searches and electronically file reports from the field. The ARMS system was partially implemented, but the field reporting system has never worked right, forcing the department to continue filing paper reports.
Anderson said the department would move ahead with those projects.
“Any unfinished business on the table today will be pushed forward to its conclusion by the assigned project managers and will be implemented at the appropriate time,” he said.
At the news conference announcing the chief’s departure, Mayor Karl Dean made it clear he has more pressing issues in the flood recovery, and selecting a replacement for Serpas would have to wait its turn.
“We’re going to go about this in a thoughtful way, we’re going to go about it in a deliberate way,” Dean said, “and we’re not going to have any arbitrary deadlines or any artificial processes imposed upon us.”
He added that while he might look to other cities for a new chief, there are worthy candidates in Nashville.
“We’ve got great people here. We’ve got a deep bench. … I look at the police department here in Nashville, Tennessee, and I see lots of potential chiefs.”
Meanwhile, Dean and Serpas expressed confidence in 35-year police veteran Anderson, who said he has no interest in the permanent position.
“I wouldn’t want to follow him as a chief for a lot of reasons,” Sheriff Hall said. “I think the citizens in the city of Nashville have confidence in the police department right now. And I think because of that the legacy, the reputation of the chief of police, the stature of that position has been elevated.”
Following the announcement two weeks ago, Serpas said he was proud of the job he did in Nashville. “I think the biggest regret is that we didn’t drive crime down further. I mean, I’m looking for zero crime.”
Serpas later told The City Paper he would take what he’s worked to develop in Nashville and apply it to his hometown.
“We’ve really got to build up a cadre of precinct or district commanders who fully understand how important and critical it is to have open, transparent, accountable relationships with neighborhoods, and then secondly, grow the numbers of active neighborhood-watch groups.”
He added, “That’s what we’ve done here for seven [sic] years. That’s what we’re going to do in New Orleans. We’re going to rekindle this issue of accountability starts closest to the people furthest from headquarters.”
Late in the afternoon on the Friday before his resignation took effect, Serpas stood before local TV cameras for one of the last times. It was to announce grand jury indictments in the shooting death of 12-year-old Makia Woodland. Hermitage Precinct Cmdr. Todd Henry attributed his detectives’ success in the case to feet-on-the-street work in the community.
Though it came after the cameras stopped rolling and as the media packed up to leave a conference room at the Criminal Justice
Center, Serpas took a moment for one last reflection on his job in Nashville.
With his back to the media while passing out congratulatory handshakes to Henry and his detectives, Serpas chortled, “Who says decentralized detective work don’t get it done?”