“If you are going through hell – keep going.”
– Winston Churchill
Today, more than 2,000 days after Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed New Orleans on August 29, 2005, violent crime still threatens the life of the city – much like before the storm. One year after the election of “reform” Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and his appointment of nationally regarded Police Chief Ronal Serpas, New Orleans’ chronically high murder rate persists. There [were] 41 homicides so far this year, Chief Coroner’s Investigator John Gagliano said on the morning of March 3, 2011. Most of the killings were drug-related, police say, along with a resurgence of murders involving AK-47 assault rifles, Gagliano noted.
Tulane University criminologist Peter Scharf says, at the current rate, the city should match the 61 homicide victims recorded on the morning of April 10, 2007. On that spring morning four years ago, law enforcement experts and elected leaders gathered for a congressional field hearing on the resurgence of violent crime in the depopulated, flood-worn city. “It was a time of illusions,” Scharf says of 2007. The professor says he and other critics mistakenly believed a change of city administrations would stanch the murder rate.
Today, in fact, many of those in key leadership positions during those desperate months after Katrina have since moved on. We still have the testimony of those invited to address the problem of the city’s notorious crime before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security – inside a chapel at historically black Dillard University.
FBI Special Agent in Charge James Bernazzani, a foreign terrorism expert who chose command of the New Orleans field office as his final FBI assignment, described the joint intelligence efforts of federal law enforcement to understand the “threat landscape.”
Before joining the FBI, Bernazzani was a Harvard-educated schoolteacher. Speaking in the forceful brogue of his native Massachusetts, he delivered an impassioned commentary to the congressional panel that April morning in 2007 of how New Orleans was failing its youth, who in turn became fodder for the violent drug trade. “Katrina didn’t create the current landscape facing New Orleans – Katrina changed it,” Bernazzani testified.
“Notwithstanding the vast majority of law-abiding citizens in this city, New Orleans was a violent city before the storm, and it’s a violent city after the storm. Based upon a generation of aspects of failures and dysfunction of state institutions, a segment of society has been created which is disenfranchised. They have no opportunity. They are products of an educational system that didn’t educate. They are products of a state judicial system that failed to mete out consequences for criminal activity. They are products of levels of corruption that drove business away from this area, thus denying the youth meaningful jobs and the city – a tax stream for programs. And when you add crack cocaine and the AK-47, you have got New Orleans today.”
Law enforcement alone cannot stop the city’s crime, the FBI agent concluded; the kids need mentors and opportunities. “We can make arrests until the cows come home; but if there’s 15 kids in line willing to take that (one) kid’s place, [whom] we’ve taken off the streets, then we’re going to be having the same conversation five years from now,” he predicted then.
Rev. John Raphael Jr., pastor of New Hope Baptist Church and a former New Orleans policeman, testified with the eloquence and dignity reminiscent of his late father, who was one of the first black NOPD officers in modern times.
“I have personally seen far too many murder scenes on the streets of New Orleans where the response at the scene always seems to be the same: A family member of the victim, broken-hearted and distraught, crying out for someone to step forth and tell what happened, while the dispassionate crowd stands by tearlessly and silently until the body is taken away,” Raphael testified. “And it has been my observation that both the boldness of violent offenders and the lack of response by witnesses, somehow is connected to, among other things, the perception that the lives of certain members of our communities are not valuable.”
“Prevention, I believe, is the key,” Ernestine Gray, chief judge of Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, testified.
While other officials focused on homicide rates, Gray recounted grim, local child poverty statistics as harbingers of dark days ahead, including low-birth weight babies topping 10 percent of all live births and high school dropout rates of 15 percent.
Youth in foster care are at high-risk for delinquent behavior, Gray noted. “It is well documented that many adult prisoners have a history of childhood abuse and neglect,” Gray said. She added: “What we know about sending kids to the adult (corrections) system is that, when they are released, they generally re-offend earlier (and) at more severe levels. It really doesn’t help the children either because they become bigger and badder criminals.”
Dr. Howard Osofsky, a psychiatrist at the LSU Health Sciences Center, testified that behavioral assessments of more than 10,000 students of all ages returning from Katrina evacuations to Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes, demonstrated the clear need for increased mental health services. He cited reports of increased fighting, “bullying” and risk-taking behaviors. “In both the short- and long-term, lack of attention to prevention and early intervention activities will contribute to delinquency, crime, substance abuse and violence,” Osofsky warned.
Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman testified that city jails housed about 2,500 prisoners and pre-trial detainees, including the mentally ill, “Unfortunately, we pick up a lot of people who really deserve other care as opposed to being in jail.”
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten offered the same message to the congressional panel that he delivered to a mayor’s breakfast shortly before Katrina: “The survival of this city will depend on the ability to control and reduce violent crime [and] to deter public corruption.”
Under questioning from Rep. J. Randy Forbes, Letten said attitudes about the city were “beginning to change,” beginning with the corruption conviction of former Gov. Edwin Edwards in 2000 and recent public corruption prosecutions in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. (Remember, this was Letten testifying in 2007 – not today.)
Mayor Ray Nagin, Thomas and Jefferson were the first to testify that April morning, four years ago. Nagin’s presentation was characteristically thin. Despite Congress’ plea for “evidence-based” proposals, the mayor submitted little written testimony into the hearing record to support millions of dollars in federal funding for vaguely defined projects, such as $10 million, “culturally sensitive” drug treatment program.
Weeks after the 2007 hearing, City Council President Oliver Thomas and Congressman Bill Jefferson were indicted and later convicted on unrelated corruption charges – undercutting their congressional testimony on the city’s behalf.
Congressman Scott inquired hopefully about the spirited consortium of nine area colleges and universities that arose after the storm. Dillard President Marvalene Hughes said the collaborative effort was being retooled, “so we can assist each other to be stronger.”
If New Orleans is going to become the true “laboratory” for urban progress that Mayor Mitch Landrieu envisions, the city needs to encourage a student-led consortium to help us tackle the urban obstacles of crime, corruption and disaster recovery – as marketable skills. Our colleges and universities should offer creative solutions for the crushing problems that limit the city’s true potential. More than 2,000 days after Katrina, we still need more encouragement than Winston Churchill can offer.