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Crime Fighting: Reporter’s Notebook

The year that was 2011

JOSEPH DANIEL FIEDLER ILLUSTRATION

“The sun is rising on the criminal justice system.”
– Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, Jan. 26, 2011.


In a city with a murder rate 10 times the national average, there were plenty of compelling notes, quotes and anecdotes that were left out of New Orleans news stories in 2011. That is why reporters empty their notebooks at the end of each year.

A year ago, Cannizzaro’s annual address on the criminal justice system in New Orleans extolled what he saw as the “unprecedented” cooperation between the offices of the District Attorney, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, New Orleans Police Department Chief Ronal Serpas Ph.D. and Sheriff Marlin Gusman, the city’s jailer.

However, as the sun set on 2011, the main pillars of the criminal justice system resembled the city’s more challenged chartered public schools – still striving, still experimenting and still under-achieving.

Unlike predecessor Ray Nagin, Mayor Mitch Landrieu remained focused on ending the city’s notorious murder rate, which Landrieu has emphasized as his top priority since his landslide primary election Feb. 6, 2010. “I’m committing that we will throw everything we’ve got at changing the culture of death and violence on the streets,” Landrieu reiterated.

Despite the mayor’s best efforts, the murder problem got worse.

Last year New Orleans shot past its nation-leading total of 178 homicides for 2010, with one month to spare. Thirteen people were shot (two killed) on Halloween night alone. The mayhem raised fears for the future of a city that will host the NCAA Menʼs Final Four basketball championships in the spring of 2012 and the Super Bowl in 2013.

As 2011 drew to a close, Landrieu and Serpas unveiled a murder-reduction plan from Milwaukee (and Chicago) to help stop the killing in New Orleans. Whatever “best practices” the administration imports from elsewhere in the New Year must be adapted to a city whose unique culture includes 24-hour access to alcohol, less restrictive gun laws than New York and other cities and a marked increase in mental health disorders since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

At times, 2011 also seemed like a year of reckoning.

Both the NOPD and Orleans Parish Prison endured another year under separate and continuing threats of federal lawsuits by the U.S. Department of Justice, for alleged patterns and practices of violating the constitutional rights of citizens (NOPD) and inmates (OPP), respectively.

A federal jury convicted five NOPD cops in the post-Katrina police shootings of six unarmed blacks (two of whom were fatally shot) and subsequent cover-up. Sentencing is set for Feb. 14. If the Danziger trial illustrated the dark consequences of unchecked police power, a “paid detail” scandal showed the proverbial “perfect storm” isn’t required to derail reform of NOPD.

The “red light detail” debacle rocked the Serpas administration. The chief himself survived calls for his removal, thanks in part to strong support from the mayor. Landrieu reached into the ranks of NOPD to discipline the superintendent’s subordinates – a stunning exercise of political power that would have triggered a public uproar if attempted by the mayor’s black predecessors.

D.A. Cannizzaro, whose office narrowly persuaded the United States Supreme Court to overturn a $20 million civil judgment for exonerated Death Row inmate John Thompson, tried to persuade the increasingly skeptical justices – looking at a second case – that prosecutors under predecessor Harry F. Connick Sr. didn’t routinely hide exculpatory evidence from defense attorneys.

Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Frank Minyard, the city’s oldest and longest-serving elected official, twice used a non-medical term to deny nationally televised allegations that death investigations by his office were historically biased and toward clearing police of any wrongdoing in death-in-custody cases. “It’s bullshit,” Minyard told PBS TV’s “Frontline.”

Broken Door Theory

The new year may be a good time to revisit the “Broken Windows Theory” of crime and urban disorder. Introduced by two social scientists in 1982, the theory became a widely accepted practice by police nationwide for reducing antisocial behavior by eliminating graffiti, repairing streetlights and implementing other neighborhood improvements. Nevertheless, what are law-and-order experts to think of a city where a hit-and-run driver plows into the office of the top state prosecutor? On a fall Sunday afternoon in 2011, a teal-colored pickup truck suddenly drove up the steps of the D.A.’s office and then slammed through the glass front doors facing South White Street. No one was hurt. The driver backed the truck out and fled on Tulane Avenue.

Crime’s “Orphans”

More than 2,000 murders have been recorded in New Orleans since the year 2000. The city consistently leads the nation in homicides per capita. Yet, there’s no prominent research available on how many New Orleans children are “orphaned” by the city’s notorious violence.

 “My suspicion is you would need to hand-build that data,” says Teresa Falgoust, a research analyst at Agenda for Children, the respected child advocacy organization based in New Orleans. Such research would require tracking homicide victims and their surviving children through published death notices, Falgoust says.

Telly Hankton’s Other Family

After the Oct. 15 murder of Curtis Matthews, a prosecution witness in the state’s case against convicted killer Telly Hankton, Mayor Mitch Landrieu issued a sweeping – and, some say, disturbing – warning to the family of the reputed drug kingpin. “I’m sending a message loud and clear to Telly Hankton and his family and anyone else associated with this: We’re coming to get you,” Landrieu said at an October press conference. In November, activists with Community United for Change complained that Police Chief Ronal Serpas was unfairly stigmatizing the families of criminal suspects – like Telly Hankton and Bobby Troy – in public statements. “Whatever happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty?’” activist W.C. Johnson asked WGNO-TV News.

Informed sources told New Orleans Magazine that Telly Hankton has 13 cousins, including a prominent college professor, a minister and a former NFL receiver, whose parents are veteran New Orleans police officers and still on the force.

$10,000 Reward

Mayor Landrieu announced in October he was adding $10,000 from his own campaign coffers to a reward for information leading to the murder of prosecution witness Curtis Matthews.

The last time the mayor donated $10,000 from his campaign the beneficiary was the Louisiana Democratic Party on Oct. 25, 2010, campaign records show.

All Together Now

Despite a frightening wave of home invasions throughout the metropolitan area in 2011, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand refused to engage in racial demagogic notions that the criminals were coming from majority-black New Orleans. Sheriff Normand told WWL-AM Radio listeners his suburban parish had its share of homegrown “knuckleheads.” Public cooperation to catch criminals, not the origin of offenders, is the main issue, he says. “The reality is we’re all in this together,” says Normand. The sheriff, who served as the late Harry Leeʼs chief deputy for 16 years, easily won re-election in the fall of 2011.

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