That was then …

The re-education of Graymond Martin

Graymond Martin has a “confession” to make.

He is the outside-the-box crime consultant and attorney profiled in this space two years ago. He was the theoretical architect of former mayor Marc Morial’s largely successful 1993 “CPR” plan for reducing crime by reforming the New Orleans Police Department (“success has many authors”). A young lieutenant and innovative rape squad commander, in 1980 Martin declared himself a newfangled police “manager” and stopped carrying his gun. The move infuriated his hidebound bosses at NOPD but captured the imagination of anyone who had an imagination. That was almost 30 years ago.

Today, Martin is the First Assistant to District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro Jr.

For the first time since he left the NOPD in 1982, Martin is back on the street. He is turning up at homicide scenes behind yellow crime scene tape – at unforgiving hours and in desolate corners of the city. (He’s the poker-faced guy in the burgundy baseball cap on your TV news.) When he’s not on the street, he’s back inside the criminal justice system of the “world’s most dangerous cities”, according to a recent posting on Fortune Magazine’s Web site.

“I haven’t worked this hard in years,” he says. But that’s not his “confession.”

Martin has been uncharacteristically quiet since his appointment as First Assistant earlier this year. He has yet to bubble over with contagious excitement about test-firing radical ideas like implementing a citywide “Happiness Quotient” – public opinion poll for assessing citizen satisfaction with life and law enforcement here. (NOPD brass shot down that one in the 1970s.) That isn’t to suggest that Martin has given up on his signature out-of-the-box thinking – or that he could if he wanted to.

More likely the colorful, provocative ideas he freely dispensed as an outsider are now parked somewhere between his two ears. Martin is solemnly digesting the massive mural of brutal, crime-shattered lives in a wounded city that the fortunate among us never really see. (Think Picasso’s Guernica.)

We see filtered “pieces” of the big picture mostly through the news media: the occasional wild police chase outside inner-city drug “territories,” the horrific aftermath of a Mardi Gras shooting, or – more commonly – the huddled, sobbing women who pour their grief into the street, pockmarked with fluorescent cones marking fallen shell casings.

For context, reporters inevitably turn to police brass and city officials who know what the big picture looks like, but never really tell us. Often, they prevaricate or equivocate.

The officials fear the concussive impact of crime on their own careers, on the city’s fragile tourist-based economy. They fear the city will be painted with a broad, bloody brush – devoid of the fun, music, laughter and love that they know as natives of a unique city.

The officials fear the image of a crime-ridden city that’s out of control – their control. They want to calm the public, including their own families, loved ones, friends and – in some cases – fellow worshippers. They fear stereotypes of victims, of perpetrators, of police, of themselves. They fear appearing weak or ineffectual. They fear distortion of the big picture by others, so they do it themselves: blame the ugly portrait on faceless judges, political rivals, the news media or social ills.

They minimize – if only to make the crime problem appear more manageable.

For example, WDSU-TV anchor Norman Robinson suddenly concluded a lengthy interview with Mayor Ray Nagin about the City Hall e-mail controversy by asking for the mayor’s thoughts on a violent, rolling shootout between gunmen standing up through the sunroofs of both vehicles. The mayor characterized this horrific scene as “a high-profile event,” at odds with downward crime trends.

It was a ridiculous statement. A violent confrontation on a major city street is an outrage and should be a call to action. But Nagin has drawn too many “lines in the sand” already. So, he minimizes. It works. He isn’t contradicted because that doesn’t work either. Better to count the days to the next election.

Here’s Martin’s confession. He candidly admits to “culture shock” in the city he calls home. The ferocity of the killings and the social alienation of many criminal culprits – and even victims – today are unlike the street he saw as a cop a generation ago.

The street has changed “considerably,” says Martin, now almost 60. “I thought I came up in a pretty violent time. But homicide detectives today tell me what I learned then has little relevance today.”

When Martin was a cop there was no dearth of violence. However, the murders then had clear-cut motives. For example, one could get killed for a serious affront such as “taking something from someone else,” (i.e. drugs, money, etc).

“Today, the offenses which give rise to murder or retaliation are just so much lighter than I recall from earlier times,” he says. “As a young black male, you can get yourself killed for a slight – for saying something to the wrong person, a wrong look or for being in the wrong place. It’s beyond my comprehension.”

“A good many are simple assassinations over simple slights,” he adds. Among them are chilling, extra-judicial acts of revenge.

One stands out. At one of his first charging conferences as First Assistant, where cops and prosecutors compare notes, Martin reviewed the case of a young man gunned down by two assailants. “He was shot 13 times and he was still alive,” Martin says. “The emergency medical technician arrived and said, ‘Who did this to you?’ The victim looked up and said, ‘I ain’t no rat.’ Then he died. Those were his final words. I found it shocking and disorienting.

 “I always thought a ‘rat’ was considered to be someone who broke a bond of trust. How can there be a breach of a bond of trust between you and your murderer? That is a powerful social statement to me – that a victim would rather take the identities of his murderers to his grave rather than participate in our system of social and criminal justice.”

Should we assume the killers are young black males with dreadlocks, oversized white shirts, baggy pants and work boots? Absolutely not, Martin replies, “If it was that easy we [police] would simply pick up everybody who dressed like that.” Yale undergraduates and law-abiding citizens sport similar attire.

Back in the day, he says, “When Kirksey McCord Nix and the Dixie Mafia were killing people in their beds, nobody said let’s go round up all the white people who look like them. We’re not talking Serbs versus Croats here. It’s easier to blame people who don’t look like us.” But that’s a false picture, he adds.

We need to stop scaring ourselves. We need the true measure of the socially alienated, the traumatized, the disconnected and the dangerous subsets. We need to cross cultural gaps and identify our true allies against fear and despair. We need more portraits of law-abiding, hardworking young black men, not just the Obamas among us, but of the many, more modest Horatio Alger, post-Katrina successes.

We need to paint a big picture of a special city, worthy of our love, hopes and dreams.

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