By Gabriella Killett and John Simerman, nola.com
July 20, 2023
A day after Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration revealed six semifinalists for New Orleans police chief, the pool of remaining candidates and the secretive process behind it drew a chorus of criticism.
The remaining candidates began two days of interviews Thursday at Gallier Hall before two panels, one consisting of city officials, the other “external” stakeholders. Four of the candidates went through questioning throughout the day Thursday, and the remaining two candidates were set to go through the same process Friday.
Cantrell’s chief administrative officer, Gilbert Montaño, identified the final six at a City Hall press conference Wednesday. Along with interim NOPD Superintendent Michelle Woodfork, they include Thedrick Andres, DeShawn Beaufort, David Franklin, Anne Kirkpatrick and Jarad Phelps.
All six candidates were chosen through a nationwide search conducted by the International Association of Police Chiefs following Shaun Ferguson’s retirement in December. But the lack of input from community members in the process, with the interviews held behind closed doors, rankled some policing watchdogs.
Stella Cziment, the independent police monitor, declined to grade the pool of semifinalists, while chiding Cantrell’s administration for making that task impossible for the public.
“That’s where having some more stakeholders at the table to question those candidates would have been so valuable,” she said. “We don’t yet know what experience these individuals have that could be beneficial to New Orleans.”
Community meetings were held to help the IACP develop a candidate profile, but that’s different than allowing the public into the selection process, Cziment argued.
“The community often is miscategorized as an obstacle to policing, instead of being seen as the greatest resource and asset that police can have,” she said. “To ignore them is to not capitalize on that fact.”
Anthony Jackson Jr., president of the Police Community Advisory Board in the 7th District, disagreed, saying the community meetings accomplished their purpose.
“They explained the process, and the city received feedback from the community,” Jackson said.
He lent his support Thursday to Woodfork, for her “extensive knowledge of the Police Department.” Woodfork is the lone internal candidate to make the final cut.
“As a local native of New Orleans, she understands the landscape and the mindset of the citizens of New Orleans,” Jackson said. “Most importantly, Woodwork is a police chief who will allow the citizens to bring their solutions to the table.”
W.C. Johnson, a chairman for the Community United for Change organization, argued that the search process was flawed, saying it was built to choose Woodfork in the end.
“All we get from Mayor Cantrell is smokescreens,” Johnson said. “(The process) always appeared to be… trying to rubber-stamp what the mayor wants in the first place.
Montaño said this week that the process was designed to prevent “a popularity contest” in the search, but that reasoning didn’t satisfy Johnson.
“It’s just an excuse for not opening it up,” he said.
Former NOPD superintendent Ronal Serpas, now a Loyola University professor, agreed with Johnson’s assessment, saying the field of candidates reflects Cantrell’s intentions all along with the police chief search.
The mayor “has not been the least bit opaque about what her desire was” in seeking a new chief locally, conducting a national search “because they made her do it,” Serpas said.
Cantrell balked early on at the idea of a national search, insisting that she would focus from within the department for her next chief. But eventually, facing a well-funded recall campaign, she relented under pressure from business and civic groups, the City Council and New Orleans Inspector General Ed Michel.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, said he was “less than impressed” with the pool of semi-finalists, or the short profiles of each that were given to committee members.
“I’m looking at people like Thedrick Andres and Deshaun Beaufort that have been passed over for other police chief jobs in the recent past. I’m looking at profiles that don’t include any of the blemishes or problems in the applicant’s past,” he said.
“So if the panels are supposed to ask probative questions and they don’t even have access to that information, it is a problem.”
Goyeneche noted that it’s still unclear if the Cantrell administration played a role in culling the original field of 33 candidates. It’s also not clear what weight the mayor will give to the recommendations made by the two panels.
Goyeneche said the field of candidates reflects political reality and the state of the city’s police force.
“This is the second term of an embattled mayor that only has two years left in office. (NOPD) is under a consent decree. It’s grossly understaffed. The city is being flooded with crime,” he said.
“Are they [potential candidates] going to uproot their families and come here knowing they only have two years to deal with all of these issues? Those are all real factors.”
Goyeneche argued that Cantrell’s insular selection process could complicate the chances of her chosen chief being confirmed by the City Council under a new process approved by voters.
“That process is going to be very public and very thorough,” Goyeneche said. “She’s done herself no favors. And most important, she’s done whoever she elects to nominate no favors.”
City Council President JP Morrell said after a Thursday meeting in an interview with WWL-TV that he doesn’t believe that the candidates give the council much to work with.
“These (were) the six best people out of the 33,” he said. “It’s almost like…there’s a concentrated effort to make sure that our local middleweight is only fighting lightweights.”
On Wednesday, Montaño offered a much sunnier take.
“This is an incredible list that… I feel demonstrates how important New Orleans is to the rest of the country.”
WWL-TV’s Paul Murphy contributed to this report.