By Matt Sledge & John Simerman | NOLA.com | September 4, 2022
With New Orleans’ murder rate in the red zone and cops fleeing the force, Mayor LaToya Cantrell has dusted off a quarter-century-old playbook: She’s called in the NYPD.
Just as former Mayor Marc Morial did when crime and killing engulfed the city in the 1990s, Cantrell is enlisting veterans of the nation’s largest municipal police force to shore up a flagging department.
The team of consultants she has brought on includes John Linder, one of two hired guns from New York credited with helping New Orleans engineer a turnaround of its corruption-riddled force under Morial and Police Superintendent Richard Pennington.
Linder’s name still carries some cachet here thanks to that success, and some observers who have been sounding the alarm over the NOPD’s recent struggles cheered his return. This time, he’ll be accompanied by two new cohorts – Fausto Pichardo, a 45-year-old former NYPD patrol chief, and another NYPD veteran, Thomas Conforti.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, expressed cautious optimism about the team, and credited Cantrell for making a call that the department needed outside help.
Linder and company “would not be here were it not with the mayor’s blessing and with Shaun Ferguson’s blessing,” Goyeneche said. “This is something that should have started three years ago, but I’m grateful it’s underway now.”
But while bringing in talent from the Big Apple reaped great results back in the 1990s, it’s an open question whether the same turnaround formula can work today.
The “broken windows” style of policing Linder’s team imported to the Crescent City back then – which stressed taking even minor crimes seriously — has fallen out of vogue. It may require far more cops than the depleted force can muster, anyhow.
That’s not to say Linder — a civilian who in the past has employed focus groups, self-critical assessments and marketing to breed change — will offer the same prescription this time. At this point, it’s not clear what his team of former NYPD commanders has in mind to temper the current crisis of rising violence and flagging officer morale.
The New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, which is paying for the consulting team, declined to release specifics of the new policing game plan, or a draft of the report laying it out. Whatever the strategy, it will be aimed at a New Orleans police force that is far leaner than the one Pennington sought to fix under Linder’s guidance.
The NOPD is bleeding. City figures show the force down to 950 officers and losing grip on basic services, such as timely responses to emergency 911 calls. The department has about 375 fewer officers now than when Pennington rolled out the crime plan developed by Linder and Maple. After that, Pennington went on a hiring spree.
Meanwhile, the pace of murders is the highest since Pennington made the city the first to import Linder’s brand of policing.
And U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan, who has overseen a decade of reforms to the NOPD, pumped the brakes last month on the city’s gambit to end a decade of federal oversight.
In short, Linder, Pichardo and Conforti have no shortage of challenges.
“It really does seem like deja vu in some ways,” Morial said in an interview this week. “It’s heartbreaking that this problem of violence has returned.”
The man in a homburg
Pichardo is now “consulting chief of operations,” Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson told NOPD staff via e-mail Wednesday, Pichardo’s first day in the role. Soon, questions about Pichardo’s authority and rumored personnel changes ran rampant.
In response to questions, City Hall spokesman Gregory Joseph said Pichardo “will have no authority independent of Chief Shaun Ferguson,” and would not be able to discipline officers or hire and fire command staff. He “does not fall within the chain of command,” Joseph said.
Linder, 72, has been back to New Orleans since his prominent role in the 1990s. Mayor Ray Nagin summoned him in 2005 just before Hurricane Katrina, when violent crime again surged.
Linder’s relationship with Cantrell goes back further than that. According to City Hall, Linder hired Cantrell out of Xavier University to work for the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
“The Mayor and Chief Ferguson initiated the hiring of Pichardo and Conforti,” Joseph said in a statement. “John Linder and the Mayor are colleagues and friends, and he was brought in at her urging.”
The appointment of the three consultants comes after months of pressure from the City Council, business and civic figures for the mayor to rethink her approach to crime. There also have been calls for the mayor to sack Ferguson, although she has stood by him.
When Linder came to New Orleans in 1996 at the behest of Morial and Pennington, his partner was former NYPD deputy police commissioner Jack Maple. The pair’s involvement in the NYPD makeover coincided with an astonishing drop in murders in New York during the 1990s.
Maple left the NYPD amid a dispute between Police Superintendent William Bratton and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani over credit for the successes. Then, he and Linder hit the road to franchise their innovations.
New Orleans, with a murder rate multiples higher than New York’s, was their first proving ground. In 1994, more than 400 people were killed by homicides in the city. Maple described walking into an undermanned NOPD with officers skeptical of a Yankee and his data-heavy methods.
Maple’s approach: “Map the crime and put the cops where the dots are,” he wrote in a 1999 memoir, “The Crime Fighter: Putting the Bad Guys out of Business.” He saw rampant dysfunction at the NOPD.
The patrol force “answered more calls than they should have and stayed too long when they got there, especially, I’d noticed, when the calls came from Hooters or one of the strip joints,” he wrote.
Maple wrote that Pennington sold the public on a guarantee of swift declines in violent crime, some of which came from within.
Pennington was famously inaugurated on one of the department’s darkest days, when Kim Groves was murdered in a plot hatched by Len “Robocop” Davis, an NOPD officer later accused of running a protection racket for cocaine dealers.
Davis is one of two NOPD officers from that era who remain sentenced to death. The other is Antoinette Frank.
Like now, the business community, through the Police and Justice Foundation, footed the bill for the help from New York.
Maple cut a colorful figure with his Queens accent, homburg hats and silk bowties, focused on policing practices. Linder, never a police officer himself, was the management consultant.
“What Jack and John brought to us, first, was the concept of decentralization. Putting detectives into the field, closer to the citizens, close to the cops,” said Ronal Serpas, the former NOPD superintendent who at the time was a deputy chief. “Second was direct, face-to-face accountability to the chiefs and chief of operations.”
Linder, Serpas said, zeroed in on “organizational dynamics. His expertise was unparalleled outside the department, getting community support, political support. Getting all the things a department is going to need.
“And Jack was really good at, ‘Now that you’ve got these things, here’s what you’re going to do with them.’”
The Linder-Maple Group’s attempts to spread its methods across the country and world following the New Orleans experiment didn’t hold favor everywhere.
Jackson, Mississippi adopted, then dropped the recommendations the group first made a few years after New Orleans. They also included an emphasis on statistical crime mapping and Comstat meetings.
One of Linder-Maple’s core staples, the weekly Comstat meetings, featured district commanders getting publicly grilled over crime trends. Those ended in New Orleans in 2016 under Superintendent Michael Harrison.
On a philosophical level, the New York consultants counseled police in a famously laissez-faire city to take seriously minor, “quality of life” offenses. The debate over stats-driven policing and the “broken windows” philosophy – the notion that ignoring small offenses begets more serious crime – rages to this day.
Critics noted crime was dropping almost everywhere. Civil libertarians charged that hitting hard at petty crimes gave police license to racially profile. Cops weren’t harassing young White men over public urination or other ticky-tack offenses, they said.
In an interview Thursday, Morial pooh-poohed the idea that the NOPD ever embodied the “broken windows” mindset.
“If we did ‘quality of life,’ it was with a very gentle hand, a lot of warnings, a lot of referrals,” Morial said. “But I think in today’s world, with today’s problems and today’s concerns about civil rights and police-community relations, I don’t think that’s the approach. I think the approach is an approach that focuses on carjackings, shootings, murders, neighborhood posses, gangs, high-level drug trafficking.”
Observers and officers this week wondered if Pichardo will be whispering in Ferguson’s ear – or taking charge. So far, police officer groups say they’ve largely been kept in the dark.
Ferguson urged officers by email to cooperate with Pichardo “as my representative.” Serpas said that message was confusing.
“I don’t question at all John Linder’s capacity to understand the creation of a strategy to make New Orleans safer,” Serpas said. “I just don’t understand this ‘consulting chief of operations’ stuff.”
The New York crew
Linder eventually returned to the NYPD and maintained an office there at least into 2020, according to media reports. He led a tech project called “sentiment meter,” a mobile- and tablet-based resident survey on safety and the police force.
The New York Police Foundation paid Linder for consulting as recently as 2018. He made $178,000 from the foundation for that tax year.
A 1996 story in New York magazine says Linder grew up in Cincinnati, the son of social workers. He graduated from Columbia University in 1971, wrote speeches for governors in Ohio and Montana, then a novel, before moving to New York. For a time, the story said, Linder freelanced as a copy editor for Penthouse.
While Maple died an untimely death in 2001, Linder is returning to New Orleans alongside a pair of NYPD veterans.
Pichardo had a meteoric climb up the NYPD ranks to become the first Dominican-American chief of patrol before he quit amid a falling-out with Mayor Bill de Blasio in October 2020. Conforti was a 30-year veteran who led several precincts and rose to the rank of assistant chief, according to news reports.
Pichardo began serving in his new role at the NOPD Wednesday, after a roughly 10-day assessment visit last month.
One New York City cop who has known Pichardo for years described him as “well-tempered” and unlikely to bigfoot Ferguson.
New York City Sheriff Anthony Miranda, also the executive chairman of the National Latino Officers Association, suggested that Pichardo’s high-profile resignation in a reported tiff with de Blasio over mayoral meddling reflected mostly on Hizzoner’s personality.
“De Blasio was a unique mayor, you know,” Miranda said.
Muddying the chain-of-command question is the fact that Pichardo and company are bankrolled by the business community, not taxpayers, through the non-profit foundation.
The city said Friday that the consultants’ agreements are with the foundation. John Casbon, co-founder of the foundation, declined to comment about it. A news conference is slated for Wednesday.