Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s plan to name a permanent police chief from within the department only one week after Superintendent Michael Harrison’s announced departure for a new job in Baltimore is well within her mayoral authority. Her office said Wednesday (Jan. 9) that a replacement would be named Monday.
But in doing so, Cantrell would become the first New Orleans mayor in a quarter-century to name a permanent chief without conducting a national search or first making an interim appointment to allow for an on-the-job vetting period.
The last mayor to choose a police chief in the manner Cantrell plans to do was Sidney Barthelemy, who was near the end of his second and final term in 1994 when he moved quickly to replace scandal-plagued Superintendent Arnesta Taylor with Joseph Orticke.
Cantrell signaled Wednesday that she will not appoint an interim chief — a tactic by which past mayors have allowed the community time to vet the appointment — but will instead move directly, and swiftly, to naming Harrison’s permanent replacement. The mayor’s office has not confirmed whether any of the names contained in speculative local media reports is among her preferred candidates.
Cantrell’s expedited selection process, and Baltimore’s surprise announcement about Harrison’s hiring, illustrate how politically treacherous the appointment of a big-city police chief can be.
In New Orleans’ case, one expert noted the speed in making a new appointment, with relative little time for public input, differs from how most major cities usually name a police chief. Others defend Cantrell’s authority to make the appointment and point out that she has had several months to consider and evaluate potential replacements, knowing that Harrison was being courted.
In Baltimore, Mayor Catherine Pugh has been criticized for conducting a secretive selection process. The Baltimore Sun reported Tuesday that there’s so much concern about getting community support for Harrison that his formal nomination is being delayed so he can spend a month meeting community members.
Baltimore’s police commissioner appointment is highly politicized, requiring confirmation from its 15-member City Council, many of whom have already spent Pugh’s first term clashing with the mayor. By contrast, New Orleans’ city charter has no confirmation requirement, so Cantrell doesn’t need the council’s approval.
Her move to make a permanent choice so quickly is nevertheless a departure from the norm, according to Norm Stamper, former Seattle police chief and a national consultant on police policy.
“A chief’s selection process is profoundly political from beginning to end, probably as it should be,” said Stamper. Even when a mayor prefers a candidate from within the police department, Stamper said, that person is often named interim and then made part of a wider search.
“Everybody who has a stake in the outcome of a particular decision is going to be making his or her voice heard,” including rank-and-file officers, Stamper said.
Beau Tidwell, Cantrell’s spokesman, said that the mayor decided against an interim appointment because the city is less than two months away from Mardi Gras and Cantrell “wanted to move immediately to a new chief (because) she thought the talent and the resources” were already inside the department.
“We’ve got Mardi Gras coming in 57 days, and we wanted to have someone in place that wasn’t going to have a training wheels period,” Tidwell said.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he wasn’t particularly surprised Cantrell would forgo a longer search.
“That’s usually what you see at the beginning of an administration,” Goyeneche said, referring to a nationwide search. “She’s got eight months where she’s been the mayor, which means she can be assessing the police chief, meeting people” and identifying potential replacements for Harrison.
“If it’s going to be her political capital to be used to make this hire, her decision is, ‘I’m not going to drag this process out,’” Goyeneche said.
Most of Cantrell’s predecessors in recent decades have opted to take the political cover that comes with naming an interim chief, even if the temporary choice would eventually become permanent.
In 2014, former Mayor Mitch Landrieu named Harrison interim replacement for the retiring Ronal Serpas. While Harrison, a 23-year-veteran at the time, was seen as a safe pick for the permanent job, Landrieu said he planned to seek community input before making the promotion official.
But Landrieu also made it clear that Harrison was the frontrunner. The Sunday after Harrison was named interim chief, he and Landrieu toured New Orleans churches to promote NOPD recruitment. Landrieu telegraphed that Harrison was his permanent pick, promising congregants, “The message of his appointment should not be lost on anyone. … It’s time for a new generation of leaders to take over.”
When announcing Harrison as his choice about two months after his interim appointment, Landrieu said the position had been Harrison’s to lose, but that “not only did he not lose it, he gained the trust and confidence of people throughout the city.”
Landrieu never named any other finalists for the position, unlike when he hired Serpas in 2010. During that nationwide search, a 17-member committee took in applications from a large pool and narrowed the results to six finalists.
But that was a different time. A federal consent decree was looming because of civil rights abuses that marred the department’s relationship with the community in the 2000s. Landrieu called the police chief selection the most important decision of his administration.
Serpas, who was eventually named chief, was not technically an internal hire, but he had served under former chief Richard Pennington when Pennington helmed the NOPD in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Even in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, former Mayor Ray Nagin used the interim appointment route after Eddie Compass left the NOPD’s highest office. Compass’ exit was abrupt: Nagin fired him after a falling out. He named Warren Riley as interim chief and waited almost two months to make the appointment permanent — with little fanfare. Reporters learned of Riley’s permanent appointment in a one-line news release issued while Nagin was on vacation.
Compass was part of a six-candidate short list in April 2002 and named police chief 22 days later. Pennington, who would eventually run unsuccessfully for mayor in 2002, was selected by Mayor Marc Morial after a six-month nationwide search in 1994, but Morial kept that process close to the vest. The lack of public input didn’t earn Morial much criticism at the time, except when City Council members and community leaders began pushing the mayor to make up his mind.