Former New Orleans police chief Richard Pennington dies

 

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Laura McKnight reports that Richard Pennington, the former New Orleans police superintendent widely credited with reforming the department and reining in violent crime in the late 1990s, has died. He was 69 (NOLA.com).

 

State Sen. Troy Carter, a former New Orleans City Council member, said one of Pennington’s close family friends contacted him Thursday (May 4) with news of Pennington’s passing. Carter was on the council during Pennington’s tenure, and said Pennington brought a new sense of respect and guidance to a police department struggling under the weight of skyrocketing crime (NOLA.com).

 

“He came in with a true presence — kind of a gentle giant — that brought a new level of respect and direction to the police department,” Carter said. “His contributions to New Orleans will always be remembered.”

 

Former Mayor Marc Morial, who appointed Pennington, agreed, saying Thursday that Pennington came across as mild-mannered, but “was tough as nails,” particularly in disciplining officers (NOLA.com).

 

“I think he is hands down, by far, without any comparison, the best police chief New Orleans has had,” Morial said (NOLA.com).

 

When he arrived in October 1994, Pennington inherited a department riddled with corruption and inefficiency, tasked with protecting a city plagued by murder.

New Orleans had the highest per capita murder rate in the country and the highest rate of civil rights complaints against officers. Within five or six years, Morial said, the murder rate had fallen dramatically and civil rights complaints “were negligible.” 

 

The city’s murder total had surpassed 400 when Pennington became chief and the police department was “in shambles,” agreed former NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas, who was a major in the department when Pennington was named its leader, and rose to second in command under Pennington (NOLA.com).

 

“There were so many problems that needed to be confronted,” Serpas said Thursday. “He recognized early on that the way to change the culture of the police department was in hiring and promoting and advancing the department through new generations.

The day Pennington was sworn in as New Orleans’ police chief, an FBI agent pulled him aside and told the former Washington, D.C. deputy chief that the department was filled with corrupt and rogue officers. Many, the FBI told him, were involved in a widespread drug-trafficking ring and the targets of a federal investigation (NOLA.com).

 

The agent ended the conversation by saying, “Welcome to New Orleans,” according to news reports at the time (NOLA.com).

 

“I thought, my Lord, what am I getting myself into?” Pennington said years later.

When he left office about eight years later, Pennington helmed a department hailed as one of the country’s most improved and admired.

 

“He was amazing,” Serpas said. “He was a stalwart as it related to integrity and accountability.”

 

Less than a month into his new role, Pennington told New Orleans City Council members that he planned to make a number of “very controversial” changes within the next year to shape up a department “some observers have described as wracked by corruption, brutality complaints and poor morale,” according to a Nov. 10, 1994 Times-Picayune article (NOLA.com).

 

He implemented sweeping anti-corruption measures and reorganized the department. Under his leadership, nearly 350 unethical officers were indicted, fired or replaced. He was instrumental in a major drop in the murder rate, from a high of 424 in 1994 to 158 murders in 1999 (NOLA.com).

 

Pennington also implemented COMSTAT, a management system that uses statistics to uncover crime trends. It can be used for the rapid deployment of resources and relentless follow-up and investigations, former police superintendent Ronal Serpas said in a previous interview. This, more than the rooting out of corruption, played a significant role in the decrease in homicides, he said (NOLA.com).

 

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