People are numb,” Robert K. “Bob” Moffett, president of the Orleans chapter of the Alliance for Good Government, says angrily.“They’re numb from murders. They’re numb from political corruption. They’re numb from insurance costs, from utility bills, from the [property] tax assessment fiasco – it’s hard to see anything in the city that’s working like it’s supposed to.”
A tall attorney with bushy eyebrows and a North Louisiana drawl, Moffett can’t be consoled, not even by personal achievements.As one of four Alliance chapter presidents in the influential, nonpartisan political endorsement group, Moffett had organized six nights of candidate forums in New Orleans, aimed at encouraging voter participation in the fall elections.He helped sell 750 tickets (at $50 each) to the group’s 40th anniversary banquet. And without destroying the event’s reputation for boozy, political gossiping, Moffett injected a heavy dose of post-Katrina gravamen into the evening’s program.
He booked outspoken criminologist Peter Scharf as keynote speaker. He also secured a special award for Baty Landis, a community activist who helped organize the Jan. 11 anti-crime march on City Hall and a volunteer program to help school children.The honor for Landis reflected Moffett’s admiration for activism. The selection of Scharf suggested his impatience with the city’s handling of its nation-leading murder rate. “You don’t see any sense of urgency in dealing with the problem (at City Hall),” Moffett says. “It’s time somebody started addressing these problems.”Peter Scharf often calls himself the “Cassandra of New Orleans.” Like the mythical figure of Greek poetry, the criminologist says he feels burdened with the ability to accurately predict the violent fall of a city – but cursed because no one will listen.For nearly a decade, Scharf has been warning New Orleanians about the costs of the city’s stubbornly high homicide rates – first as the founding director of the University Center for Society Law & Justice and recently as a research professor at Texas State University (Austin) and as an unpaid consultant to Congress on anti-gang legislation.
Scharf told the Alliance audience that violent crime in post-Katrina New Orleans was resisting the best efforts of the New Orleans Police Department and its well-publicized partnership with the local FBI.
“New Orleans has the most horrific crime risks of any city in the country,” he said. “The city is 12 times more violent than New York and nine times more dangerous than Boston.”In September, New Orleans recorded more than 150 murders. The city was on pace to repeat as the nation’s per capita “murder capital,” easily surpassing the 162 homicides recorded in 2006 with 73.8 victims per 100,000 residents (using the city’s population estimate of 270,000).In 2007, like last year, no other city comes close, the professor said. He also implied that the long-awaited arrival of billions of dollars in federal recovery dollars will not solve the crime problem. “You can’t become a world-class city with a 60 [victims] per 100,000 murder rate,” he told the cognoscenti.
National experts figure each murder costs taxpayers $1 million in criminal justice costs, health care and social service expenditures. That figure doubles to $2 million for each crime victim crippled by violence. And doctors estimate that for every murder, two crime victims suffer permanent disabilities.
Robert “Bob” K. Moffett
The result: taxpayers can expect to spend $400 to $700 million on violent crime each year in New Orleans. Meanwhile, the cost to the city’s tourism-dependent economy is too difficult to calculate, Scharf said.
He later told New Orleans: “Unless the city takes the murder of a 23-year-old black kid as seriously as the murder of tourist, you’re never going to solve this problem.”
Scharf is often sought out by national and local media. However, the professor says, he often feels like no one is listening when he warns audiences of the “moral imperative” of saving young black New Orleans men from violence. “People don’t think about the murder rate as a moral issue, but it is.“These kids are marginalized; they are not counted as human beings. It’s like the trains going to Buchenwald concentration camp in Nazi Germany,” says Scharf, 62, a white, Jewish native of upstate New York. “When you have middle-class victims, everybody cares. But when the victims are black drug dealers or prostitutes – nobody cares.”
Post-Katrina, official explanations for the malfunctioning criminal justice system range from a storm-damaged infrastructure to the attrition of veteran cops and seasoned prosecutors.
Scharf says the lack of a clear crime fighting doctrine – and New Orleans’ complex web of politics, race and cultures – makes the city’s crime problem increasingly difficult to solve.
“Blacks and whites see very different realities. And that’s where leadership should come in.”
He’s right about “different realities.” As the early front-runner in the Louisiana governor’s race, U.S. Rep. “Bobby” Jindal cited FBI figures showing Louisiana had the nation’s highest homicide rate in 2002. Here’s what Jindal didn’t show – 73 percent of those 593 murder victims where black; 24 percent were white. In fact, a higher percentage of blacks were murdered in Louisiana that year than in all but two other states (Illinois and Maryland). The percentage of whites murdered in Louisiana in 2002 was lower than all but one of 49 states surveyed (Maryland).
Meanwhile, black mayors nationwide have aggressively tackled violent crime, including Doug Wilder of Richmond, Va. and Kip Holden of Baton Rouge, Scharf says.
Former mayor Marc Morial of New Orleans and Police Chief Richard Pennington helped cut the city’s murder rate from a historic high of 424 in 1994 to 161 in ‘99, with a population of 480,000.
Today, however, NOPD’s community policing strategy alone cannot overcome the city’s calcifying culture of crime, Scharf says; Police chief Riley deserves credit for improving internal affairs and online crime maps but a comprehensive “Mayor-led” plan is needed, involving every facet of city life, including health care and public education.The plan should focus on reducing both violent crime and prison beds, Scharf says, adding: “Deal with the worst offenders.”
New York City reduced violent crime and prison beds – joint “strategic priorities” for cops, prosecutors and the courts. Murders fell from 2,174 in 1990 to 539 last year. Prisons population fell from 28,000 to 13,000 during eight years.
It can happen in New Orleans, the professor says.
Eleven days after the Alliance banquet, Bob Moffett says, his neighbor got mugged at the corner of Frenchmen and Dauphine streets.
“He knocked him down and tried to take his wallet,” Moffett recalls angrily. “I called 9-1-1, then I came out and hollered at the guy … He ran down Frenchmen toward St. Claude Avenue. It was 4:30 in the afternoon! – 4:30 in the afternoon!”
Asked what he would do next, Moffett pauses. Drawling quietly, he mulls over the possibility of volunteering as an after-school tutor.