Former New Orleans police chief Richard Pennington dies

NEW ORLEANS -- Former New Orleans Police Supt. Richard Pennington, who is credited with reforming the NOPD in the 1990's and tried to parlay that success into a run for mayor of the city, has died in Atlanta. He was 70. 

Pennington suffered a stroke in 2010, after retiring as chief of the Atlanta Police Department. He left New Orleans for Atlanta in 2002. Though he was popular as police chief here, he lost to Ray Nagin in the 2002 mayoral election.

His former Deputy Chief Ronal Serpas said Pennington had been in declining health and became more seriously ill several weeks ago. 

“Richard was a two-time, big-city police change agent. And that’s hard to do,” Serpas said. “He was a mentor who had a huge impact on my career and made lasting contributions to the NOPD and New Orleans.”

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Former Mayor Marc Morial tapped Pennington to serve as the city’s police superintendent during his two terms in City Hall. He came to New Orleans from the Washington, D.C. police department and a national search identified him as a top prospect for the NOPD.

Pennington inherited the top job at a police agency that was plagued by corruption, in a city where violent crime and murder rate had skyrocketed in the late 1980s. When he took office, the murder rate was at 424, the highest in modern history.

As Pennington was being sworn into office at Gallier Hall in October 1994, he received word that federal agents were investigating a ring of corrupt officers, including Len Davis, who is now serving a death sentence for orchestrating a hit on Kim Groves, a woman who had filed a brutality complaint against him.

“I thought, my Lord, what am I getting myself into?” Pennington said years later.

After he came into office in 1994, he instituted a series of reforms within the department. That included strengthening the NOPD Public Integrity Bureau, outlawing off-duty detail work at bars and strip clubs, and prohibiting the hiring of people with criminal records.

He also implemented the crime trend monitoring system known as COMSTAT. The number of homicides fell to 158 just five years later.

"We’ve made some dramatic changes, dramatic improvements," he told The Times-Picayune in 2002 as he left office. "I would say the situation is 100 percent better than it was eight years ago."

His popularity after leaving the NOPD in 2002 prompted him to run for mayor. He finished second to Ray Nagin in the primary and then ultimately lost in the runoff election.

Born in Little Rock Arkansas, Pennington grew up in Gary, Indiana and was a Vietnam War veteran. He began his law enforcement career with the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, eventually rising to the role of assistant chief.

After leaving New Orleans in 2002, Pennington became chief of the Atlanta Police Department, where he served until 2009.

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