When New Orleans Police Commander Bob Bardy was promoted to deputy superintendent earlier this month, he left behind an eight-year stint in the Sixth District where most people knew his name and many knew his personal phone number.
When residents had problems — even problems like being charged in shootings — they knew they could call Bardy and receive a fair hearing, they said. Now that Commander Ronnie Stevens has been named to take the lead in the Sixth District, Central City residents in particular are hoping that strong relationship continues.
“We have a strong partnership with the Sixth District police,” said Barbara Lacen-Keller, a Central City activist who now works in City Hall. “We are family.”
Residents and neighborhood leaders from around the Sixth District assembled at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center on O.C. Haley Boulevard in Central City this week to meet Stevens. They assured him of their support, naming the many programs they’ve pioneered to help forge a stronger relationship between the police officers and the community they serve: the Christmas in the Sixth annual bicycle giveaway, the “Grab Your Broom” neighborhood cleanups, the “Soul Food Sunday” hot dinners for officers on the parade routes.
“We bless them,” Ashe director Carol Bebelle said of the officers. “We cheer them on. We support them in their efforts to protect and serve.”
New Orleans has been the site of some of the worst police abuses in American history, and treatment of African-Americans by police remains a national focus perhaps more today than ever. So a sense of mutual trust is crucial, the activists said, especially in a high-crime neighborhood like Central City.
Lacen-Keller described the neighborhood’s “tough love” approach to crime scenes. After shootings or other major incidents in Central City, she and other community leaders always show up for two reasons, Lacen-Keller said: to make sure the NOPD officers are treating the people there as they should, and to make sure the officers themselves are treated fairly, she said.
“Because sometimes, they get a raw deal,” Lacen-Keller said.
Bardy — who has been commander of the district since 2006, about five years longer than the next-longest serving district commander in the city — told the crowd that the hardest part of accepting the promotion was the prospect of turning over that relationship to someone new. But when he and NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison met to discuss a replacement, they both named Stevens as their first choice to carry on those traditions “right off the bat.”
When Bardy cleaned out his office at the Sixth District, he said, he left a newspaper clipping on the desk for Stevens explaining the large red square painted on the officers’ roll-call room. The image is to remind them of his mantra — “Don’t mess with squares,” the regular people who aren’t part of New Orleans’ culture of violent crime. If you make a stop on a square, try to leave the encounter with a friend, Bardy regularly tells his officers, and he reminded the crowd at Ashe of his belief in that message one last time at the ceremony at Ashe.
“I’m begging you as a friend, continue to move forward, because no district is going to catch you,” Bardy said. “But I am going to make sure they come close.”
Stevens promised that he was on board with Bardy’s program, describing his own recent assignments supervising investigations in the First District, which covers Mid-City and Treme, and in the Seventh District in New Orleans East. When he heard he was in line for a promotion, he was eager to be assigned to the Sixth District, he said.
“I know the things Chief Bardy has done in the community here, and I want to continue them,” Stevens said. “Me and Chief Bardy have a lot of the same philosophies.”
Charmaine Baker-Fox, who has lived for 58 years in her same house in Central City, said she first met Bardy years ago on his first assignment in the district. Back then, Bardy was often the arresting officer with people she knew, even her own family members, she said, but he always treated them with respect and compassion.
Over the years, Bardy’s reputation for fairness and openness has reached a point where shooting suspects have said they would turn themselves in only if Bardy handled the arrest personally, Baker-Fox said. Children in Central City daycare programs want to be police officers now, she said, because of his influence.
“He just made a difference in this community. He’s a man first. He knows about relationships, and the most important thing in policing is relationships,” Baker-Fox said. “When he comes on a scene, he doesn’t come with loud talk and cursing words. He pulls the person aside, and says ‘Come see me.’”
That’s the type of attitude Central City will be looking for in their new commander, said Gwen and Crystal Smith, two sisters and lifelong residents who have participated in the department’s Citizens’ Police Academy.
“We want the accessibility,” Gwen Smith said. “We want an open-door policy.”
“We’re going to figure it all out,” Crystal Smith said. “It’s too early to tell. Hopefully the open-door policy will remain the same.”