Insiders expect interim Superintendent Michelle Woodfork to be appointed as the next superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department. Woodfork, they say, is clearly the best choice among the six semi-finalists that Mayor LaToya Cantrell presented to the select committee of business, civic and political leaders for interviews this week. Two of the candidates are tainted, having left their previous positions under a cloud. Others might not be suitable because of their race, level of experience or lack of working knowledge about the city.
With crime on top of almost every citizen’s mind, the city doesn’t have the luxury of hiring a chief who needs a couple of months to familiarize himself or herself with the neighborhood rivalries, gangs and drug culture behind much of the violence. While yesterday (July 19) was a rare murder-free day, other crimes still took place.
It’s no secret that Cantrell handpicked Woodfork and that Woodfork has closely followed her boss’s lead. Independence has not been Woodfork’s strong suit. Critics don’t expect that to change. Yet, with a police force of 900 and officers continuing to resign or retire, Woodfork can hit the ground running but still can’t stop crime.
“I don’t care if the greatest chief in the world was hired. I don’t care if Jesus Christ came down on a cloud with the Blessed Mother,” one NOPD retiree said. “Without additional manpower, neither Michelle Woodfork nor any other chief will be in a position to make a real difference.”
Of course the new chief is going to want to change the culture. But it’s a catch-22. Any attempt at cultural change in the NOPD will be difficult to implement with an ever-dwindling workforce, and the ingrained culture will continue to drive officers away. There are 37 candidates in the current recruit class. It is estimated that at least five will wash out. Some will quit the day after graduation to take higher paying jobs in agencies with a better morale and less dangerous work.
The failure of the much-touted Violent Crime Task Force to present fresh, cutting-edge solutions is also hampering efforts to bring crime under control. Woodfork is not to blame for the Task Force’s deficiencies. Former 911 director Tyrell Morris was appointed to take the lead. His recent departure from the Orleans Parish Communication District might have thrown the project back to square one. Holistic programs like violence interrupters are being recycled from past administrations with limited success.
New Orleans police officers are burned out, disrespected, unappreciated and underpaid. They can only react to crime. They are often vulnerable when responding to major incidents in one-person vehicles. They are afraid of becoming victims themselves. In addition, there is no traffic enforcement in the city. Hoodlums know there is rarely a penalty for racing the wrong way down a one-way street and waving firearms out the windows. At the same time, drug dealers are brazen. Carjackers are fearless. Kids spray paint cars or break car windows out of sheer meanness. Young adults settle their petty grievances with guns and don’t care if a female is the intended target or if a child is nearby.
Today’s New Orleans is violent and gritty. It’s hard to find a resident or business owners who has not been personally touched by crime. The city’s criminal justice system is on life support. The new police chief will only be one person and will be able to accomplish only so much until the force gets rebuilt in the years to come. Under these dire circumstances, the selection committee, the City Council and Cantrell have their work cut out for them. The new superintendent can’t arrive a moment too soon.</
Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as former District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, former City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell. She is a member of the Democratic Parish Executive Committee. Columbus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.