The police chief candidates from Waco and Chattanooga came early last week, spending somewhere between an hour and two hours with Mayor Bill Purcell. Then, on Friday, came Ronal W. Serpas.
The mayor is known for being able to talk a blue streak, always probing, asking questions, sidetracking into related stories. Serpas, for his part, is a high-octane Cajun whose words come in rapid fire and at a high volume. After their morning meeting began with a fine start, they continued the conversation over lunch at the Hermitage Hotel.
“When [Serpas] sat down for the interview,” relates Deputy Mayor Bill Phillips, who was present for all three interviews, “he immediately started talking about the crime situation in Nashville. He even had information that we didn’t have, that we hadn’t been told. He had clearly done his homework.”
At some point, even the mayor himself had heard enough, so he asked Serpas if the applicant had any questions for him. “Serpas wanted to know about schools and what they have in the way of programs that his 15-year-old daughter was interested innamely volleyball,” Phillips adds. Purcell, a family man with one daughter who has made public education the hallmark of his administration, probably pulled the Kleenex out of his desk drawer at that point.
Purcell went into the weekend mulling over the three candidates but with Serpas decidedly at the fore. He chatted with people like District Attorney General Torry Johnson, who had been on the citizens’ panel that winnowed the list of finalists for the mayor to consider. “I told him that for what it was worth I was most impressed with Serpas,” Johnson says. It turned out that there really wasn’t much to think about: Serpas was the man.
After one term in office, Purcell has gone out of state to hire new heads for water and sewer, city planning and the fire department, and while he wasn’t completely responsible for the school board director and airport authority director, they, too, came from elsewhere. Overall, in terms of the magnitude of responsibility, the visibility of the job and problems with which to contend, Serpas’ challenge most resembles that of schools director Pedro Garcia.
Serpas is likely to harp on accountability as much as Garcia has. And the new chief is bound to encounter a bureaucracy that is every bit as entrenched and vicious as the one Garcia has been asked to penetrate. And the police chief will find a department that has experienced only mediocre successes in crime statistics, much as the schools system has enjoyed only so-so test results. From day one, Garcia stepped onto the battlefield and went nuclear, overturning staff, rearranging budgets and leaving a morale problem looming large. Serpas must navigate the problematic and precarious landmines at the cop shop, although many who have worked with him say he may proceed a little more cautiously than Garcia has in the schools administration.
“I think Purcell was looking for someone who would take the best of our department and the best of their experience and pull them together,” Phillips says. “I think Serpas represents the total package.”
Ronal Wayne Serpas’ elementary school teachers probably didn’t think he would amount to much. “I failed it,” he says of the third grade. Some high school teachers in his hometown of New Orleans probably felt the same way. “In the 11th grade, I got my girlfriend pregnant,” he recalls. So he dropped out.
Serpas married his girlfriend and had two children in short order. But the marriage didn’t last long. Suddenly, as a very young man, Serpas says, “I realized pretty quickly what I’d been doing was not the solution.”
At ground zero, he then earned his GED, the equivalent of a high school diploma. A buddy, meanwhile, was joining the police force. Serpas’ father, grandfather and several uncles also had worked on the force. In fact, since 1914, there had always been a Serpas at the New Orleans Police Department. In June 1980, Serpas signed up.
He flourished. “He was like the brightest of the bright who works his way up to the top of the department,” says Mike Doyle, director of personnel for the city of New Orleans. “He always finished at the top of every promotion exam that was given.”
Serpas was named captain at such a young agethe youngest in the department’s history, in factthat he was given a nickname: “Captain Kid.” When he was promoted to major, he got another age-related nickname: “Major Minor.” Soon, he was dating a Charity Hospital emergency room nurse who told him she wasn’t content to be dating a high school dropout. “She told me, 'I’m not gonna be married to some guy without a college degree.’ So I went back and got the bachelor’s degree, and ultimately the Ph.D.” The doctorate, from the University of New Orleans, was in urban studies.
Clearly no idiot, Serpas began hitting his stride in the New Orleans Police Department when he was appointed chief of operations in 1996. At the time, New Orleans was an incredibly crime-riddled city. A new chief, Richard Pennington, had just been brought in from Washington, D.C., to right the ship, and Serpas moved up to become his right hand man. Ultimately, Serpas assumed authority and was given day-to-day control of the force. Violent crime dropped by half, and overall crime was down by over a third. “But the biggest measure of our success,” Serpas says, “was that the public was saying it felt safer, it felt better. At the end of the day, the public is what matters.”
Serpas made headlines during his tenure, including during an incident at the St. Thomas Housing Project, in which a police officer was trying to serve a warrant and the entire community rose up in arms. “It was a blow-up,” Serpas recalls. “Part of it was that our policemen were not getting good information about who was committing crimes, and in fact it wasn’t the people in the projects committing them. But there was a lot of heavy policing going on.”
In other words, the residents were angry. Ultimately, a huge crowd gathered around the officers. “Serpas went in there and calmed the situation down,” one source says. “He stayed out there for hours.”
Elsewhere, Serpas showed an ability to oppose the wishes of the officers even when it wasn’t good politics. Proposals to require college degrees for higher ranking officers were being considered in the city of New Orleans, but no fewer than four police organizations opposed the idea. Serpas pushed the reform through. “There are clearly issues that some police groups hold dear, and that’s good,” Serpas says. “But this is an evolving business. You can’t police America the same way you did in 1960. Some things we’re doing are the same way we did stuff in the 1800s.”
Meanwhile, on at least one occasion, Serpas ran afoul of departmental rules, if not politics. In May 1994, he was suspended for five days for having a business that employed off-duty police officers, which, incidentally, has been a much-abused practice in the Metro Police Department. Ultimately, civil service officials in New Orleans overturned the suspension.
In 2001, colleagues in the police force were surprised when they woke up one morning to discover that Serpas was leaving to become chief of the Washington State Patrol. “There were a lot of people here who were surprised he left for Washington because they just assumed he’d become police chief in New Orleans one day,” says David Bowser, who worked with Serpas from 1997 to 2001.
In Washington, press reviews were almost unanimously positive. Weekly accountability meetings designed to draw attention to increasing arrest rates showed marked success. Serpas wrote and spoke frequently on the issue of racial profiling and how it harms the relationship between law enforcement officers and citizens. Serpas also published a story in Police Chief Magazine discussing ways to discipline police officers that require less time than conventional methods and create more trust between supervisors and rank and file.
The man who appointed Serpas to his position, Washington Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, isn’t seeking a third term next year. Because a new governor might want to appoint his own chief, Serpas was more than happy to pick up the telephone when a recruiter for the Nashville job came calling.
Those who have worked with Serpas say he is a gifted diplomat and has an ability to distill complicated information into simple bullet points. “Ronal cuts a very imposing figure,” says Bowser. “He’s 6-foot-4, 6-5, and when he walks into a room, he just commands respect. His real skill is as a people person.”
He’ll need every bit of those skills here. Many outside analysts have charged that the upper ranks of the police department are rife with political infighting. In fact, three top-level chiefs applied for the top job, and now Serpas will have to supervise them. Of those three, Serpas says, “I’m going to call them and tell them I’m looking forward to the future and I need their help to get done what we need to get done.”
Serpas says one of the things that convinced him the job was the right fit was Purcell himself. “He wants us to get focused on doing the job. He thinks we can make greater headway in reducing violent crime. The murder rate is good, but other violent crimes should be focused on. I think the mayor is very sensitive to quality-of-life issues, and my experience in New Orleans is that quality of life drives people’s impressions of whether they are safe.”
In addition to a great job opportunity, Serpas was also eager to get to Nashville because the two children from his first marriage will be so much closer. (A son, 25, works in New Orleans; a daughter, 22, is in nursing school in Troy, Ala.) Serpas says he and his wife plan to first move here and find the school that best fits their daughter, who is 15. Then they plan to find a home in that district. At that point, it’s only a matter of time before he’ll have a gumbo cooking on the stove.
“I love to cook,” he says. “I cook Cajun food.”
Plans are for Serpas to take the oath of office Monday, meaning that he only gave one week’s notice to his employers in Washington.
“I’m just ready to get to work,” he says.
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