New Orleans’ first Black police chief dies age 85

Warren Woodfork Sr., who served the department through controversy, held the post from 1985 - 1991

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Warren Woodfork Sr., the first Black police superintendent for the New Orleans Police Department, died Wednesday, the department announced.

He was 85, according to local media.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell revealed that he will lie in state at historic Gallier Hall next week.

“Chief Woodfork was the first African American police superintendent in New Orleans history and worked tirelessly over his 28-year law enforcement career to protect our city and her people,” she said in a statement.

Dutch Morial, the city’s first Black mayor, in 1985 appointed Woodfork as chief, a position he held until 1991.

Woodfork was part of a 2001 Time magazine story that examined the increase in Black police chiefs across the country. 

According to Time, Woodfork, then a postal clerk for the city, went to police headquarters in 1964 with a friend who was going to take a recruitment test. 

Woodfork, on a whim, took it too and passed.

“I never had a desire to be a policeman,” Woodfork told Time. But he also said he fell in love with the job.

Woodfork was born in a public housing project in 1936, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported. He served in the Air Force before embarking on his postal and law enforcement careers.

Woodfork started as a patrol officer and, by 1972, became the first commander of the Felony Action squad. The squad was New Orleans’ controversial attempt to reign in crime. Plainclothes officers in unmarked cars confronted violent crime suspects and sometimes got in deadly shootouts, according to the news paper.

City and civic leaders, concerned with the squad’s tactics, wanted it shut down. But Woodfork was unmoved, dismissing the naysayers as “bleeding hearts.”

“We solved a lot of the violent crime problems we find ourselves with again today,” Woodfork said in a 2009 interview with The Times-Picayune.

A violent incident led to the squad’s demise.

In 1980, white police officer Gregory Neupert died after he was shot by suspects as he searched in an area known for illegal drugs. Three people, including two suspects in Neupert’s death, were shot to death within days.

Federal officials indicted seven New Orleans officers on charges that included police brutality related to the investigation into Neupert’s death, the New York Times reported.

By 1982, the city announced it would disband the squad due to budget cuts. Still, some believe the move was in reaction to community outrage over the Neupert investigation, The Times-Picayune reported.

Still, Woodfork was lauded as a visionary who dealt well with people.

“He helped the department’s transition out of that ‘Dragnet’ era, where the cops know everything about crime but the public knows nothing,” Ronal Serpas, who served with Woodfork and later as police superintendent told The Times-Picayune. “He was seeing the future of community policing and embraced it.”

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