More than three years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans remains one of the nation’s most dangerous cities. Since the storm, we’ve seen: unprecedented cooperation between the New Orleans Police Department and other criminal justice agencies, federal agents teamed with NOPD officers; the introduction of new arrest and release policies; the acquisition of “gee whiz” weaponry and crime-fighting technology, including 213 mounted crime cameras (down from the 1,000 cameras the mayor promised in August 2003) and computerized crime mapping of the city; the rebuilding of police stations, courts and prisons; record salaries for cops; pay incentives for education and specialized training; millions of dollars in police overtime; the destruction of housing projects; the resignation of former District Attorney Eddie Jordan; shakeups of police management; the prolonged presence of 300 Louisiana National Guard troops; police targeting of neighborhood “hot spots” and traffic checkpoints; crime summits; continuing offers of cutting-edge ideas and technical assistance from entities such as the U.S. Department of Justice, the RAND Center for Quality Policing and the Vera Institute; the advent of the citizens-based New Orleans Crime Coalition; and NOPD’s $238,000 “community policing” strategy, now limping into its second year of implementation.
Of course, we had to rebuild the criminal justice system after the storm. But none of the crime-fighting strategies in the mix seems to have made a dent in our city’s nation-leading murder rate. By July 31, 2008, there were 116 homicides, up from 113 on the same date last year, according to figures from the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office. Using Mayor Ray Nagin’s population estimate of 302,000 for the rebuilding city, our homicide rate is 66 per 100,000. Using the U.S. Census Bureau’s population estimate of roughly 240,000 (which the city disputes), our per capita killing rate is roughly 83 per 100,000. No matter which population estimate is used, New Orleans is the nation’s murder capital. “No other city comes close,” says Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the Tulane University School of Public Health.
Other cities with majority black populations, such as Richmond, Va. and Newark, N.J., report per capita murder rates in the 20s per 100,000 – after employing successful strategies in response to upward spikes of violence.
New Orleans hasn’t seen dramatic reductions in violent crime since the late 1990s, when the city was a model for the nation. Marc Morial was mayor; Richard Pennington was police chief. The Morial-Pennington approach to community policing involved every level of city government. Reducing violent crime became the number one priority for virtually every city agency. During Mayor Nagin’s administration, it’s been largely left to the NOPD.
Scharf says the city’s “laissez-faire crime fighting strategy” simply hasn’t worked. “It’s not an NOPD failure; it’s a collective failure. It’s a wake-up call to the city’s leadership.” But Heidi Unter, chief operating officer for the private New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation, suggests city stakeholders have working tirelessly since Katrina. “We are not rebuilding in a vacuum,” says Unter, an architect of the city’s $1 million police recruiting drive as well as non-traditional crime reduction measures. The Foundation is working with the New York-based Vera Institute on pretrial release, expedited screening and charging reforms so persons arrested for nonviolent offenses “don’t languish in jail for 30 to 60 days.” NOPD and the Foundation are also receiving advice from the RAND Center for Quality Policing and the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The system is working hard to reform itself and to make sure it works for other people,” Unter says. “However, the criminal justice system is reactive.” True, we need better schools, health care, job training and mental health services to address the city’s compounded social ills since Katrina.
The problem is leadership. On Jan. 11, 2007, after thousands of angry, crime-weary citizens marched on City Hall, Mayor Ray Nagin promised: “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.”
That same day, Chief Riley announced that Lee P. Brown would conduct a study of NOPD’s operations (implemented in July 2007) to restore public trust in the force through a philosophy of “community policing.”
A year later, Riley fired an off-duty New Orleans police officer for waving her gun near a camp filled with young children. Riley also fired another officer who led Crescent City Connection police on a high-speed chase over the Mississippi River bridge to his job site, NOPD’s First District station. Despite repeated urgings, the chief himself failed to move aggressively on an easy community policing initiative – ensuring that his officers were advising violent crime victims of the state Crime Victims Reparations fund and other emergency assistance, as required by state law.
If community policing is the strategy that will save us, then pro-police organizations such as the New Orleans Crime Coalition, the Police Foundation and the Metropolitan Crime Commission really need to re-examine their working relationships with the NOPD.
As Greg Rusovich, head of the Coalition – a sponsor of the Lee Brown study – said last year: “If Chief Riley makes a policy change and it has not been effectively communicated and institutionalized then we really haven’t done much.” One year later, that’s the way it looks.
Police organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police, which lobbies for collective bargaining while opposing Riley’s disciplinary policies in the legislature – shouldn’t be let off the hook either.
Southern University in New Orleans hosted the first city Crime Summit after the storm on Sept. 16, 2006, with a keynote address by Lee Brown. It’s time to invite Mr. Brown back to town. Maybe he can tell the community what NOPD and the city are doing right – and wrong – to implement his strategy. We need a meaningful strategy.
Each week, academes from as far away as Africa and Europe inquire about teaching opportunities at historically black Southern University at New Orleans, Chancellor Viktor Ukpolo says proudly. “They are eager to play a role in the ‘Renaissance’ of the city,” Ukpolo, an economist and native of Nigeria, says. SUNO, like the eight other colleges and universities in post-Katrina New Orleans, are hungry for faculty, another local economist – University of New Orleans Chancellor Timothy Ryan – told a visiting congressional delegation this summer.
Recruitment and retention of teachers is the “No. 1 challenge” of local higher education since the storm, Ryan says. Privately, an official at another major university says the reasons for the shortage vary by institution but include: a lack of affordable housing and competitive pay, working conditions and the city’s notorious violent crime. Visiting professors want to know where they can find a safe place to live in New Orleans. “That is the first question, when they come here for an interview,” Ukpolo sighs.
SUNO will offer campus housing for the first time in 2010, with the completion of a 700-bed residential hall – next to the lakefront headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Meanwhile, SUNO officials say they’ll continue to try and offer visitors guidance toward safe, off-campus housing in New Orleans. Lots of luck; it’s sad but true.