Eighty-two-year-old New Orleans police Sgt. Manuel Curry – reputedly the longest-serving law enforcement officer in the nation – takes a break from patrolling the gritty streets of Central City. Inside the 6th District station, Curry looks back over his 61-year NOPD career to the state of the city, post-Hurricane Katrina. “This Superintendent [Warren J. Riley] has got his hands full – more than any superintendent I ever worked for,” says Curry, who joined the force on Dec. 30, 1946.
Eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina, the NOPD is still headquartered in FEMA trailers, cops are leaving the force at an average of 17 a month and crime is returning, he says. “The murder rate has gone crazy for awhile,” Curry adds.
“It’s off the charts,” University of New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf agrees. So far this year, the city is on pace to retain its unwanted title as the nation’s “murder capital,” based on killings per capita, the professor says. Populate estimates vary since Katrina; the professor uses the 191,000 population estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, distributed in a February report by the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Last year, New Orleans recorded 162 murders – or 85 per 100,000 people, says Scharf. “We are 20 percent higher than anyone else; no other city came close,” he says. With 30 murders through the first two months of 2007, the city is on track to finish this year with 180 killings – an increase of more than 10 percent last year.
After a bloody start to the New Year, on Jan. 11 several thousand angry citizens marched on City Hall, demanding an end to the violence. The public uproar has drawn comparisons to a similar, but smaller and more homogenous protest 10 years earlier.
Now as then, public outcry has triggered a focusing of resources and marching orders for elected officials to make crime “Public Enemy No. 1.” But how did New Orleans lose the hard-won reductions of violent crime of the late 1990s? The city’s laissez-faire culture, chronic social ills and an erosion of police reforms are among a few “suspects” in the 10-year slide.
“There was a failure to stay on top of the issue,” lawyer C.B.
Forgotston says of crime. “The culture of New Orleans is to avoid acknowledging negatives. As such, things must reach a crisis level before the public becomes engaged. Until we change that attitude, the [violence] cycle will continue.”
Ironically, both the major successes and eventual slippage in the city’s crime fight began under former mayor Marc Morial and former police superintendent Richard Pennington, according to interviews. Federal funding from the Clinton Administration’s COPS program helped the chief to saturate the streets with officers. Pennington enjoyed strong support from the public, the Morial Administration and the business community, led by the then-fledgling New Orleans Police Foundation. An unprecedented growth in the national economy didn’t hurt.
On Oct. 13, 1994, Pennington became chief. The FBI immediately informed him of widespread police collaboration with local drug traffickers. The relationship between police misconduct and high rates of violent crime became painfully evident. Pennington began cleaning house.
By year’s end, New Orleans was the nation’s murder capital with 420 killings – still the worst in city history. NOPD staffing levels dropped, which Morial attributed to poor pay and Pennington’s anti-corruption campaign.
On Oct. 14, 1996, Pennington unveiled a bold plan to cut the murder rate in half “within three years.” The proposal lacked funding support until Dec. 5, 1996, when angry citizens marched on City Hall after the notorious “Louisiana Pizza Kitchen murders.”
In February 1997, police received substantial pay raises; Pennington’s plan took effect. Three years after the chief’s promise, murders plunged by more than half to 162 killings in 1999.
However, two years of upward spikes in murders followed, spurred by violent drug gangs, Scharf says. “Take away 1999 and the Pennington Miracle was a lot more modest.”
The murder rate was revving up again when Eddie Compass became Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s first police chief in 2002. Compass flooded crime “hot spots” with federal help and he went out on patrol himself. Yet, there were 275 murders by the end of 2004 – up more than 50 percent from the 162 murders in 1999.
Before Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, “competing doctrines” for crime fighting became apparent, Scharf says. Compass favored a community-policing model. His No. 2, then Assistant Superintendent Warren J. Riley, favored aggressive patrols. “Compass was saying we need cops to call people, ‘sir’ and Riley writes a letter from [a seminar at] Harvard [University] telling his commanders to get it together,” in response to a wave of murders, Scharf recalls. Meanwhile, problems were emerging in the local criminal system at “Tulane and Broad,” which was widely considered dysfunctional, even before the Katrina.
“The elephant in the room was that all of these cases weren’t getting prosecuted,” Scharf says. “This was the beginning of the tension between NOPD and New Orleans District Attorney’s Office. These organizations were not coordinated in any real way.”
Compass resigned after Katrina. He never enjoyed the kind of support from Mayor Nagin – a delegator – that Pennington enjoyed from Morial – a skilled politician and coalition builder – says a Compass confidant.
Riley was sworn in Nov. 29, 2005 – three months after the storm. He vowed to take advantage of the “fresh start” offered by Katrina. But the murder rate began to surge again in March 2006, followed by reductions in police manpower.
After a quintuple homicide in June 2006, Nagin expedited Riley’s stunning request for 300 National Guard troops and 60 State Police troopers – deployments that were later extended to June 2007. After years of imploring frightened witnesses to come forward, Jordan and Riley recognized the incongruence of asking for public cooperation with law enforcement when the chief and top prosecutor are sparring publicly.
Today, Sgt. Curry, a decorated World War II veteran of the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach, says he’s confident of the resurrection of New Orleans and the NOPD under Riley. “I think the city will come back and it will come back better,” Curry says. If the public and components criminal justice system can all work together, crime rates will fall. “We can bring it down considerably,” he says. “But murder is kind of hard to bring down.” Most killings occur “in the heat of passion,” he adds.
Central to Pennington’s success was “Comstat,” the computer-aided analysis of crime patterns that resulted in weekly grillings of district commanders.
However, a combination of incentives and pressure for “improving the numbers,” resulted in police downgrading scandals, replicated by other cities with tourism economies. “Comstat in theory [is] a good idea, but the process became skewed and misused,” says lawyer Eric Hessler, a former NOPD officer who left the force in 2001.
“The slippage started during the final years of the Richard Pennington administration,” says Anthony Radosti, vice president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission (MCC). In 1998, the MCC found a 13 percent error rate for all crime stats citywide. “The public was given a false sense of security,” Radosti says. A probe by the Office of Municipal Investigation (OMI) also concluded NOPD’s reporting processes were flawed. Then, as later, investigations and scandals failed to convince city leaders of the need for regular, independent audits of NOPD crime statistics, a long-standing recommendation of OMI. Public skepticism of the seven major crime categories persists today.
“Other than murders and auto thefts, we don’t have reliable crime statistics,” Radosti says. The result is a hyper-focus on murders, which, along with auto thefts, are the most verifiable crimes – yet most difficult to reduce by convictions in court.
Of the major crime categories, police can most easily influence convictions and true statistical reductions in armed robberies, thefts and burglaries, Radosti says.
Unfortunately, good police work may go unrecognized because of the public’s distrust of NOPD statistics. “Police discipline and supervision of the officers is critical to reducing crime,” Radosti says Rigidly enforced by Pennington’s internal affairs division, police discipline relaxed during the Compass era but is tightening up again under Riley, according to interviews. “The Public Integrity Bureau under Deputy Chief [Marlon] Defillo is a true bright spot on the New Orleans Police Department today,” says Radosti, a retired NOPD detective.
Other experts say all the NOPD and the criminal justice system can do is “keep a lid” on deeply rooted social problems. And the lid has slid off in recent years.
“The social ills caught up with us,” says Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Frank Minyard, dean of elected officials in the local criminal justice system. “The social ills [are] really the foundation for the crime that caught up with us.” That unwanted “foundation” includes a thriving illegal drug trade, years of failing public schools, large concentrations of poor people living in inadequate housing, absentee fathers and teen pregnancy. “Fifty to 70 percent of the live births in the black and Hispanic community in New Orleans are to unwed mothers,” Minyard says.
In 1989, with the advent of crack cocaine, Minyard predicted a local “drug holocaust” of young black males aged 16-24. From 1990 to 1995, at least one child under age 18 was murdered each week in New Orleans. Since Minyard’s prediction 17 years ago, the majority of the roughly 5,000 murder victims entering the city morgue have fit that profile, the coroner says. “The young men did not have an education to get a job so they went out and started selling drugs and killing each other; Katrina just exaggerated (the problem).”
Nationwide, four out of 10 young black males are arrested each year or have some other adverse contact with the criminal justice system, experts say. Locally, the local news media’s disproportionate coverage of black youths who get into trouble has a “stigmatizing effect” on the remaining six out of 10 who follow the law, says Dr. Marshall Lee, a black author and psychotherapist at Tulane University. “The issue of the ‘moral majority’ of black men needs to be given attention and support as New Orleans-born filmmaker Tyler Perry has done in his new movie, Daddy’s Little Girls.”
During the city’s first post-Katrina crime summit in September, the most encouraging moment for one group of black male teens that day may have come during an impromptu meeting with a Mardi Gras Indian.
The youths were volunteers from local public high schools. They arrived at 7:30 a.m. to set up chairs and perform other menial tasks for the day long summit at the Hilton Riverside Hotel. Cops, scholars and activists filed into the summit, just hours after the city recorded its 100th homicide of 2006.
By noon, at least a dozen of the young men volunteers were dozing in the audience as top law enforcement officials droned on about Katrina’s effects on arrests, convictions and incarceration rates, staffing levels and budget allocations. Local U.S. Attorney Jim Letten later told a reporter the black youths are more at-risk for murder. “If you’re a black male, age 16 to 24, or you are anybody who is living in the proximity of these guys who are plying their drug trade in public housing, Section 8 housing or a poor area, then you are a lot less safe than the average citizen” who lives and works elsewhere in the New Orleans area.
That afternoon, many crime summit volunteers who were dozing earlier, suddenly crowded around a casually dressed man in the hotel lobby. He was Mardi Gras Indian “Chief” Daryl Montana, a convicted drug felon, recovering drug addict, and son of the late Mardi Gras Indian Chief “Tootie” Montana. The students recognized the younger Montana as a pre-Katrina visitor to their high school, from an Indian outreach program. “It’s very easy for you to be recognized for negative things; I want you to be recognized for good things.” Montana told the youths.
“You are so gifted, but I can’t pull that gift out of you, you have to look within yourself. And you don’t have to make the mistakes I made; I made them for you. And don’t anybody let you feel less than what you are.”
The young men listened respectfully then left the crime summit. They looked alert and held their heads high.