The NOPD Veteran says she has seen many changes during her 32-year career and is ready to take the department into the future
By Anitra D. Brown
The New Orleans Tribune
Michelle Woodfork says she has been preparing all of her life to be the superintendent of NOPD .
“I was born to this,” she says. “I couldn’t skate around it.”
Her father Richard spent six years with NOPD before joining the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Her Uncle Warren made NOPD history by becoming the first Black man to serve as police superintendent, appointed by then-mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial in 1985.
As for Michelle, she has spent nearly all of her adult life with the department – more than 32 years – rising from patrol officer in the 7th District to captain of NOPD’s Management Services Bureau, before being tapped to replace Shaun Ferguson – all while earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in criminal justice from Southern University at New Orleans, raising her 16-year-old son, and making her home in New Orleans East.
Having been a part of NOPD for more than three decades, Woodfork says she has seen significant changes for the better – from more mental health support for officers to the hyper focus on constitutional policing.
“I joined the department in 1991, and to be quite honest with you, it’s a completely different department,” says Woodfork. “Policing is different. We went through Hurricane Katrina, so that has changed things. The consent decree and all of its reform has helped change the department.”
Perhaps the only thing Michelle Woodfork is more committed to than the city of New Orleans and NOPD is her family, especially her son.
“One of the first things that I did before I could accept the interim position was talk to my son. I wanted to make sure he understood all that’s going to happen. I told him ‘some people are going to say negative things about me. Your friends may tease you about me. I may have to make some tough decisions that people don’t like, and they may not give me good press. They may even look at the stuff you do.’ He is a good kid, and doesn’t give me any problems. But I told him ‘you would have to be really on your Ps and Q’s.”
She wasn’t just warning him. She was giving him a say.
Although it was her “dream job,” Woodfork says she told her son she wouldn’t accept the assignment, not even temporarily, if it would “hinder him or cause him any heartache, headache or problems.”
“Of course, he’s like, ‘Mom, you’ve been talking about this forever. I want you to do it. I’m going to support you,’ ” Woodfork says, recounting the conversation with the teen.
So with her son’s nod, Michelle Woodfork has, for the last seven months, been living her dream. It’s one that she hopes to continue, having made it to the short list of candidates being considered by Mayor LaToya Cantrell for the permanent position. And while she and the other finalists go through the process associated with a national search that must include confirmation by the New Orleans City Council of whoever the Mayor selects, Woodfork balances the dream of being named NOPD’s permanent superintendent with the reality of . . . well . . . being NOPD’s superintendent.
On the Job
That means she has been busy.
Low recruitment and retention numbers have been critical issues for the department, making reaching out to officers and hearing their concerns a priority for Woodfork since being elevated to NOPD’s top job.
“We were showing up at roll calls when I first started. Twice a week, going to each district at different times, and saying, ‘tell me what is it that you think should be changed? Tell me what is it that is hindering you or putting those ideas in your head that you might want to leave or you’re unhappy with your job.’ We listened. You have to communicate with the people who are boots on the ground. They matter. They’re our biggest partners.”
With concerns about rising crime echoed across New Orleans, Woodfork took the helm of NOPD at a time when all eyes are focused on public safety, with some questioning whether NOPD can handle the task.
Interim or not, New Orleanians expect her to produce results.
“We went out and listened to the community,” says Woodfork. “My staff gets on me all the time. They say that I never say ‘no’ to an invite to a community meeting or a community event. I feel like I can’t because our residents are important. I want to hear what they have to say. This is where they live. This is where they pay taxes. This is where they’re raising their children. Their opinions are very important. I work for the citizens. I can’t tell them ‘no’. I’m going because it’s important to me . . . because I live here.”
Results Are In
She and her leadership team examined the department’s discipline policy after hearing from some officers that felt certain punishments were too harsh for some infractions, she says.
And in response to residents’ concerns about safety, violent crime and the increased involvement of youthful offenders, she directed NOPD to increase its focus on the city’s juvenile curfew and implemented Operation Golden Eagle 3.0, a new phase of a combined effort between NOPD, ATF, the Louisiana State Police, FBI, Homeland Security and the state’s Probation & Parole division to reduce crime and increase arrests in areas deemed as high crime.
And while they may seem slim, NOPD continues to report measurable declines in violent crime. Crime stats released at the end of the first week in August show a decline in violent crime that has marked the first half of the year.
Woodfork first touted the decline at the beginning of July, comparing the first six moths of 2022 with the same period in 2023 at a mid-year press conference.
By July 1, 2022 there were 148 murders in New Orleans for the first half of 2023, compared to 120 murders for the same period this year, marking a 19 percent reduction. Meanwhile, non-fatal shootings also decreased from 303 in the first six months of 2022 to 248 for the first six months of 2023.
Woodfork also announced a 42 percent decrease in carjackings along with a 21 percent in decrease in armed robberies for the same period while touting increases gun confiscations and firearm arrests. There were 225 gun arrests during the first six months of 2022 compared to 473 in the first six months of this year.
During the July press conference, Woodfork said fighting crime is the top goal of her administration. She even released a strategic plan earlier this year, outlining how she, along the men and women of the department, would do so.
Among other highlights, the plan details how Woodfork intends to improve public safety by building partnerships and with the efficient use of resources. Some of NOPD’s civilian workers have been assigned to handle certain non-emergency calls, freeing officers to respond to more crime calls. Woodfork credits an increased use of the alternative police response program, new civilian hires, and partnerships with other agencies such as the city’s health department for helping to drive crime stats down, along with an accountability-focused approached to fulfilling their duties on the part of officers.
Still, she recognizes that if the city she loves is to ever deal with its crime problems in a meaningful way, it will take more than special operations, crime fighting plans and curfew crackdowns.
There has to be a convergence of improved economic and educational opportunities, along with strides forward in other quality of life areas, such as housing and healthcare to help usher in the transformation New Orleanians deserve, she says.
But in the meantime, NOPD will do its part to be a part of the larger community solution as well. Woodfork has led in revitalizing NOPD’s DARE or Drug Abuse Resistance Education program to reach youth about the dangers of drugs while also helping to provide alternative activities to engage young people such as the Junior Citizens Police Academy, a partnership with the New Orleans Recreation Department that pays teens a $600 stipend while the learn about NOPD.
Oh, and recruitment numbers are up as well.
Under Woodfork, the department has taken control of recruitment advertising, which had been handled by the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation. By midyear, the department had 45 new recruits for 2023, nearly twice as many than for all of the previous year. Meanwhile, the department’s recruit class 199 is underway, and applications are being accepted now for class 200, which starts in November.
They Don’t Know Me
Despite the positives steps, Woodfork says she knows there are naysayers – individuals who, for whatever reasons, believe there is someone more qualified to lead the New Orleans Police Department.
“I respect their opinion,” she says. “My opinion is different ”
The final decision by the Mayor is probably several weeks away based on reported timelines, and who ever is selected will face what promises to be a highly-politicized confirmation process.
Even if she isn’t selected to fill the position permanently, Woodfork says she has no plans of leaving New Orleans or NOPD.
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be right here. I’m only 53 years old, and I have a lot of work to do. There are a lot of things that I want to see and be a part of as far as the police department is concerned and as far as the community is concerned. I am committed to the community, I love this place. I have a vested interest here. My home is here. I was born here. I was raised here, and I’m going to die right here in the city of New Orleans.”
To be clear, however, she wants the job – the one she dreamed of, the one she believes she can do, the one she has been doing.
“I am the best choice for this police department in this space and this time,” says Woodfork. “With the issues we face, the reduction in manpower, the amount of crime that we’re having, the consent decree . . . I believe I’m the one to lead us out of this. I’ve been doing it for the last seven months. Over the last seven months, crime is down. We have tripled the number of recruits. And no, they are not viable now. It will take ten months (before new recruits are deployed). But you have to crawl before you walk.”
When her experience has not been called into question, her past has.
Undoubtedly, Woodfork’s appointment as interim superintendent and consideration for the permanent post has also opened the door for critics to recount missteps documented in the veteran officer’s disciplinary record. The incidents date back decades.
She doesn’t shy away from the topic.
“Through those years, I had some just disciplinary things that I had to face. I was 20 something years old, doing things at 20 year olds do. But those, mistakes – well some of them – because I still maintain that in some of those instances I was innocent. But some of those things that I had to face. And I faced them. I faced a demotion. But what it did was prepare me. I take each and every one of those instances and share them with people that I’m mentoring. ‘Hey look, this is what happened to me.’ I don’t run from it. I don’t hide from it. It happened. It’s something that I did. It’s not who I am. I have a past, not a pattern. At 53, you don’t see those same things. So I embrace whatever happened. I never run from them.”
As for those who suggest she lacks experience, those quick to point out that she has never commanded a district or served as a deputy superintendent or suggest that she lacks the experience needed to be named NOPD’s permanent leader, Woodfork’s rejoinder is blunt and bold.
“They don’t know me. They don’t know who I am. They don’t know who I come from. Those people who say I’m not prepared, I’m not ready, I need mentoring, whatever it is that they’re saying about me, they just don’t know Michelle Woodfork. I’ve been preparing since I was an officer in the seventh district.”
The reality is that those who carp about Woodfork never having held a district command or a deputy superintendent post do so as if there is some never-ending pipeline of women who have.
Women are still underrepresented among NOPD officers. According to the U.S. Census, women comprise 52.5 percent of New Orleans’ population. But at NOPD, they are only 24 percent of all commissioned officers. Nationwide, women make up only 12 percent of sworn officers. And women represent only three percent of police leadership positions in a profession that is still male-dominated, according to 30×30, a national movement designed to advance the representation of women in policing to 30 percent by 2030.
If the criteria for a superintendent at NOPD is having been a district commander and a deputy chief, finding a candidate from within the department who also happens to be a woman is not an easy task. The department didn’t get its first female deputy chief until 1985, six years before Woodfork joined NOPD. It was Michelle Woodfork’s uncle and NOPD’s first Black superintendent that appointed Yvonne Bechet.
So the historic weight of her appointment to the department’s top seat, however temporary, is not lost on Woodfork. And when she considers changes that have taken place at NOPD, she has specific thoughts on how women officers are seen and treated now compared to when she first joined NOPD in 1991.
“We are not being ignored as much,” she says. “I have to say, it took a lot of work from people who have come before me – the Bernadine Kellys, the Gwen Norwoods, all those people rose to through the ranks in the department. There were some captains, but we were not seeing many females go too far above that. You had Linda Buczek , Yvonne Bechet – I definitely want to call out her name because she’s one of the shoulders that I stand on. But they were really scrutinized — really, really heavy. That has not changed much. We are still being held to a different standard. We have to do it 100 times better.”
Fortunately, doing it better is a part of Woodfork’s plan.
When she talks about the impact she hopes to have on NOPD and on New Orleans, she calls to mind her parents.
“My parents were two little project kids from the Sixth Ward, out of the Lafitte Housing Project, who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and raised two children and did a great job, supported me one thousand percent. They exposed my sister and me to so many things they wanted us to see, all the things that they didn’t see or experience. And I am doing that now with my son,” says Woodfork. “And I look at the department like that too. The people before me did the best job that they could. Some of them did a really, really good job. I want to bring it to the next level.”