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Ex-New Orleans police chief Richard Pennington dies at 70

Richard Pennington when he was police chief in

Richard Pennington when he was police chief in Atlanta in 2003. Photo Credit: AP / W. A. HAREWOOD

Richard Pennington, a leader in three U.S. major police departments who attained national renown for bringing departmental reforms and helping reduce crime rates while serving as chief in New Orleans, died Thursday at a hospice center in Atlanta. He was 70.

The cause was complications from a series of recent strokes, said his wife of 23 years, Rene Webb Pennington.

Pennington spent more than 25 years in Washington, D.C., and was serving as deputy chief when he was recruited to lead the New Orleans police in 1994. He left New Orleans in 2002, after losing a mayoral contest to communications executive Ray Nagin, and then served as police chief in Atlanta until retiring in 2010.

He took over in New Orleans at a time when murder, robbery, assaults and drug trafficking were at record levels locally and nationally. It has become a widely circulated story in New Orleans that on the day Pennington was sworn in, a locally based FBI agent took him aside.

The police force was riddled with corruption, the FBI agent said, with many officers involved in the drug trade, others facing federal investigations. He added: “Welcome to New Orleans!”

“I thought, my Lord, what am I getting myself into?” Pennington later recalled to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Over the next eight years, 350 of the 1,200-plus city’s police officers were indicted, fired or otherwise disciplined in a police cleanup campaign.

Murders dropped from a high of 424 a year when he arrived in 1994 to a low of 158 five years later. It then began to rise, although not to pre-1994 levels. It was 258 in 2002.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based organization that advises police departments, said Pennington made a national name for himself by bringing in new computerized crime-tracking systems and management approaches to make district commanders accountable for crime in their zones. It was modeled after a system used with some success in New York City.

He laid down a rule that police officers would no longer be allowed to moonlight in off-duty hours at bars or strip-tease establishments.

In New Orleans, Pennington was a hit with a wide swath of the population. Diners at trendy restaurants often gave him a standing ovation when he entered, but he was perceived by some as out of touch with the rank-and-file officer. Policemen’s associations in New Orleans did not support him when he ran for mayor in 2002. Violent crime was said to have had a 50 percent drop under Pennington’s leadership, but there were complaints that police commanders, under pressure to reduce crime, routinely downgraded offenses to less serious categories.

In Atlanta, he again was credited with reductions in violent crime: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that city was ranked the nation’s third-most-violent when Pennington took charge in 2002 and that it ranked 18th in 2009.

But again he was not universally embraced. “Pennington often comes across less as chief of police and more as the CEO of the ADP,” the Journal-Constitution wrote.

“We get on our officers for performance. Any corporate system does that,” Pennington told the paper, which observed that his remarks sounded more “CEO Jack Welch than Gen. George Patton.”

The paper also reported the chief had been out of town and away from the job for a total of 260 days of his eight-year tenure, the equivalent of an entire work year. Pennington denied excessive absences. “No, I don’t feel like I was out for a whole lot because, you know, the required training opportunities I had,” he said at the time.

Richard Javon Pennington was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, on Nov. 26, 1946, and he grew up in Gary, Indiana. He joined the Air Force after high school and served in the Vietnam War.

Discharged in 1968, he saw an advertisement seeking officers for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington. He rose steadily through the ranks, serving for a time as one of the top officers in the section of the city east of the Anacostia River, a high-crime, low-income part of the city whose community leaders had long complained of being neglected.

While serving on the force, he graduated from American University in 1976 and received a master’s degree in counseling from the University of the District of Columbia in 1988.

He was a past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and drew considerable media attention for his colorful 6-foot-4 and 240-pound presence.

“He frequently attends local jazz festivals, armed with his Nikon camera to snap photos of the celebrities he meets,” the Atlanta paper once noted. “He loves to fish in the bayous and ski in Colorado. He also enjoys revving up the motor of his two Harley-Davidsons.”

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