Two years after Hurricane Katrina, crime threatens to strangle
New Orleans’ recovery — if politics doesn’t poison it first.

Polls show crime is the most critical issue to local residents trying to decide whether to stay or leave post-Katrina. Yet the city’s nation-leading homicide rate persisted over the long, hot summer.

CRIMEFIGHTING: THE LONG, HOT SUMMERGround zero for the struggle is the city’s dysfunctional criminal justice system. Unable to stop violent crime, the criminal justice cognoscenti have resorted to what one expert calls “outsourcing responsibility.”

“There have been many public relations attempts to explain [the violence] in terms of other components of the system,” says Peter Scharf, a Texas State University criminologist who has studied New Orleans crime for more than a decade.

For example, Scharf says, during July the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), the mayor and other city officials heaped most of the blame for the city’s high murder rate on District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. Criminal Court Judge Arthur Hunter also has been routinely criticized – for upholding the constitutional rights of jailed defendants to a defense attorney and timely proceedings. In addition, Scharf continues, authorities have insisted New Orleans murders are largely limited to the violent drug trade – even as addicts rob and steal from law-abiding citizens. But Jordan was the focus of the political heat.

A stream of adverse court rulings in high-profile homicide cases along with the district attorney’s policies on charging defendants (which have since been revised) contributed to the city’s crime woes, Scharf acknowledges. However, the NOPD deserves a share of the blame. For example, the chief of NOPD’s homicide division for a year after Katrina was removed following an internal affairs probe. In addition, efforts to address systemic problems, such as the quality of police reporting, have only recently begun anew.

“I’m not defending Eddie Jordan,” Scharf says. “But the finger-pointing is absolutely consistent with efforts [by police brass and city officials] to explain the horrific murder rates other than by their own leadership capacity.”

Indeed, how did Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Warren Riley get off the hook, while Jordan twisted in the hot summer wind?

Answer: Finesse. At the Jan. 11 Citizens march on City Hall, there were loud calls for the  mayor, the chief and the district attorney to resign, though none did.

Afterwards, a contrite Nagin said: “My pledge to the citizens of New Orleans, from this day forward, is that everything that I do … will be totally and solely focused on making sure that murders become a thing of the past in our city.” In addition, Chief Riley announced that private consultant Lee Brown would conduct a six-month study of NOPD’s operations to restore public trust in the force through a philosophy of “community policing.”

In the ensuing months, the local federal law enforcement establishment tightened its warm embrace of Riley while increasing its cool distance from Jordan.

In two congressional hearings on post-Katrina crime, local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten described Riley as a “committed, competent, reform-minded police superintendent.” FBI Special Agent-in-Charge James Bernazzani took the chief to an international meeting of top cops in Norway, (a country with a population of 4.6 million but only 34 homicides last year.)

Jordan was out in the cold.
His close ties to political mentor U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, who was indicted in June on federal corruption charges, didn’t help Jordan’s relations with the “Feds”, but there were other disagreements.

On June 20, Letten’s long-standing “policy” frustrations with Jordan surfaced. Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Letten blamed the district attorney for failing to issue charges within a 60-day period prescribed by state law, resulting in the release of 5,100 defendants from jail. Letten says steps had been taken to reform the “previously formalized and dysfunctional communication dynamic” between the district attorney’s office and NOPD. But he clearly faulted Jordan.

Meanwhile, Republican Louisiana Senator David Vitter told the Senate panel that any federal aid to Jordan’s office and NOPD should be linked to “needed reforms.” Vitter’s call rang false. Soon thereafter, he admitted to consorting with prostitutes.

Back in New Orleans, Jordan weathered demands for his resignation, resulting from his handling of a quintuple murder case. He agreed to a review by a national panel of experts. He made several middle-management changes and his political crisis passed.
Like predecessors Harry Connick Sr. and Jim Garrisson, Jordan’s future relations with the Feds will probably be civil, at best.

Among Jordan’s most vocal critics was Mayor Nagin whose Jan. 11 promise remains unfulfilled. Nagin also remained silent when predecessor Marc Morial asked the Justice Department to take over the Danziger Bridge police-homicide case, potentially the most politically charged and racially toxic case the city has seen in a generation.
Nagin has long ignored calls for an independent monitor of the NOPD and regular, outside audits of police crime statistics and reports. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost – at the NOPD.

Conspicuously, Riley declined to “speculate” when asked to  assess police-community relations during the July release of consultant Lee Brown’s “community policing” strategy for NOPD. Suffice to say, he can’t blame Eddie Jordan.

By July 31, there were 113 homicide victims this year. Using Nagin’s population estimates of 255,000 residents, the city is on pace to finish 2007 with approximately 200 murders – increasing its per capita rate to approximately 73.8 victims per 100,000 residents; up from 63.5 per 100,000 residents last year, criminologist Scharf says. Now, as then, no other city comes close.

NOPD’s hefty pay raises kicked in July 1, and Brown reports that the NOPD has approximately six officers per 1,000 residents, a “considerably more favorable” ratio than NOPD enjoyed before the storm, the report states. That’s a higher ratio than New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. So far, the efforts of 1,300 cops (and the prolonged deployment of National Guard troops and State Police) aren’t enough.

Exasperated citizens may unwind by taking one of those Saturday bike rides with the city’s “Recovery Czar.”

Long-term, of course an unprecedented commitment to citizen involvement is needed to save the city from concentric cycles of crime, violence and cynical cynical politics.

Vote, write, shout, make signs – demand action. Volunteer at schools and playgrounds; help keep the next generation around to help us. Don’t wait for the next politician to fall.

New Orleans must rise above its leaders or else crime will strangle the recovery. That is, unless politics poisons us first.