Retiring New Orleans chief saw ranks thin, crime rise

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans police chief Shaun Ferguson announced his retirement Tuesday after four years punctuated by a disastrous building collapse near the French Quarter, two hurricanes, a pandemic, dwindling police manpower and a violent crime surge that put residents and politicians on edge.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced Ferguson’s planned yearend departure in a news release in which she thanked him for more than 24 years of service with the department. Ferguson succeeded Michael Harrison, who left New Orleans to head the Baltimore police department in January 2019.

“I will still be your neighbor and I will always be a part of this city that I love so much,” Ferguson said in his statement.

As it did under Harrison, the New Orleans department under Ferguson continued to win praise for progress in implementing reforms outlined in a court-approved agreement with the U.S. Justice Department nearly a decade ago.

But manpower has dwindled to well under 1,000 officers, down from 1,300 a few years ago. Increases in violent crime, including homicides and carjackings, have contributed to a fall in Cantrell’s political popularity — she’s facing a recall effort just over a year after an easy re-election victory.

Ferguson and Cantrell have noted nationwide crime increases and police morale problems that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic. They also have blamed problems at the department in part on costly monitoring and other requirements imposed on the department under the consent decree.

The city has moved to end the federal oversight which arose after scandals involving deadly police violence following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the judge in the case has given no indication she will do so.

Meanwhile, the department’s critics, including union officials, say a lack of confidence in department leadership and an allegedly overzealous internal affairs investigation unit have contributed to low morale.

In her announcement Tuesday, Cantrell thanked Ferguson for “selflessness and sacrifice” and she noted the challenges the city faced after he took over, including the collapse of a major hotel under constrcution in 2019 and damage from hurricanes Zeta in 2020 and Ida in 2021.

Cantrell will appoint Ferguson’s successor. If she does so by the end of the year she can avoid having to secure City Council approval that would be required under a new voter-approved requirement that takes effect Jan. 1.

“We must ensure that the next chief commits to upholding constitutional policing and transforming the department,” Council President Helena Moreno said. “That is why any chosen candidate for chief must adhere to the City Council confirmation process widely endorsed by the voters of the City.”

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