For some time after Richard J. Pennington arrived in New Orleans, members of the city's small fraternity of cop-watchers would receive occasional anonymous telephone calls. "Pennington's leaving," the voice on the other end would say. "The moving van's in front of his house right now." It was a curious form of hazing, if only because it was so easily contradicted: The van was never there. But the rumors always got back to Pennington — he had to deny them publicly a few times — and they served their purpose: to remind him that there were people in town who didn't want or expect him to last as police chief.
Pennington finally did come close to decamping this past spring, when Washington, D.C., the city he'd left to take over as police chief in New Orleans, put him on its short list to take on the job of overhauling its beaten-down police force. But by then everything had changed in New Orleans. He had managed to turn himself into perhaps the most popular public official in the city, as well as one of hottest properties in American policing.
He did this by leading the transformation of the New Orleans police department from an object of outright derision into a force that chiefs in other cities look to these days for inspiration. When Pennington took over, crime in New Orleans was skyrocketing, morale on the force was nearing rock-bottom, and corruption on the force was endemic. Indeed, on his first day in office he learned from the FBI that one of his officers was running a drug ring made up of NOPD cops. As Pennington says, dryly, "It didn't take long for the reality to set in that I had a very troubled police department."
He went after corruption vigorously, forcing the resignation of dozens of officers, disciplining several hundred more, and creating a new, hard-nosed Public Integrity Division. He reordered an administrative structure that had broken the department into personal fiefdoms, and banned the practice of allowing officers to hire their supervisors for off-duty guard "details" at restaurants and other establishments around town. He worked closely with Mayor Marc Morial to raise officers' salaries and beef up the force: In the past 18 months, the NOPD has hired some 500 recruits.
Perhaps most important, Pennington put into place the process known as "Comstat." The weekly meetings — an idea imported from New York City — allow Pennington and his brass to know in detail what crime problems the city is facing and to deploy accordingly, and give them a tool for putting pressure on district commanders to make crime-fighting their top priority. Comstat "holds everyone responsible for crime in their patrol areas," says Pennington. "The captain gets on the lieutenants, the lieutenants get on the sergeants and the sergeants get on the patrol officers." The results can be read in the city's violent-crime statistics: double-digit drops over the past couple of years, and, in the first six months of this year alone, a decrease of 13 percent from the same period in 1997.
Of course, Pennington's efforts have been helped by everything from the healthy economy to a rising determination in inner-city communities to combat violent behavior. But in searching for keys to New Orleans' turnaround, the eye inevitably comes to rest on the city's newly vigorous police force. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to put something like this in place," Pennington says. "It gave us the ability to believe in ourselves — the creativity of the commanders and some of the subordinates has really fostered a convincing attitude that we can go out there and really make a difference in fighting crime. We didn't believe that before."
— Rob Gurwitt
Photo by Jackson Hill/Southern Lights