Louisiana, the second most dangerous state in the nation, now has the eighth most dangerous city -- New Orleans, according to a national research firm. The annual 354-city survey is based on FBI reports on six major crime categories, according to Morgan Quitno Press, a Kansas-based company specializing in city and state statistical reference books. Powered by the nation's second-highest murder rate in 2003, New Orleans moved up five spaces from 13th place the previous year. "Crime across the country for the most part is going down or flat, but New Orleans has crept up a little bit," says Scott Morgan, president of Quitno Press.
Asked to respond, Deputy Chief Marlon Defillo of the New Orleans Police Department says the city is seeing reductions in murders, robberies and rapes so far this year. (The Quitno study is based on 2003 data.) In addition, the NOPD is now working "on one accord" with the District Attorney's office and other components of the local criminal justice system -- a refreshing change from the bout of finger pointing that occurred over the summer. "We recognize that there is work to be done in New Orleans with respect to improving the quality of life, and we're very confident that as the department continues to grow, we're going to see a reduction in violent crime," Defillo says.
Heidi Unter, research director for the University of New Orleans Center for Society Law and Justice, says the Quitno study is significant because it compares New Orleans to other cities. Typically, NOPD and city leaders measure progress by comparing current local crime statistics to previous local crime statistics. "We need to look at how we stack up against other cities and strive to be the safest city in the country," Unter says.
We agree. And it is encouraging that NOPD has a strategy. However, the plan needs help in four major areas:
• Hiring. First, the department is trying to beef up its force from 1,665 this year to 1,885 next year, with an ultimate goal of 2,000 cops. We think relaxing the city's residency requirement would broaden the available pool of available recruits, but the mayor and a majority of the City Council are unconvinced. Currently, only one of 17 local residents who apply make the cut to be on the force; that rate is down from one of 10. That tells us New Orleans is pretty well picked over. The city needs to raise pay to attract more prospects, but the city's budget is strapped.
• Identifying problem areas. NOPD must continue to attack high-crime areas such as a 7-square-mile inner-city area, where 50 percent of the city's murders occur. The so-called "Murder Crescent" covers three police districts, including parts of Gentilly and Treme. "The reality is we have had periods where a young black male has a greater chance of death or injury from violent crime than a soldier in Fallujah," says Peter Scharf, director of the UNO Center.
• "Code 6." Cops believe that a small percentage of criminals are responsible for most of the city's violent crimes. So NOPD is working with District Attorney Eddie Jordan and other criminal justice officials to identify, target and prosecute New Orleans' most violent offenders. The program will be modeled after a successful program begun by the neighboring Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office. It requires seasoned prosecutors, who are in short supply in Jordan's office. "The program will cost money to start up, but it will pay dividends almost immediately," says Anthony Radosti, vice president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission.
• Regional cooperation. Crime is not just a New Orleans problem. "The odd thing about Louisiana is that it has higher crime in rural areas than most states do," Morgan says. This year's survey also shows that New Orleans and its suburbs constitute the fifth most dangerous metro area in the country -- though that category suffers from inadequate data from other urban areas. Even so, the public should demand coherent state, regional and local crime-fighting strategies and inter-parish cooperation. NOPD should be on the same page as deputies in surrounding parishes. For example, an NOPD cop who stops a suspect wanted in Jefferson Parish may not know that suspect is a fugitive because the two law enforcement agencies do not have immediate access to the same criminal data, says MCC president Rafael Goyeneche. "Our first priority as a region ought to be getting all these jurisdictions to share the same criminal information databases to help catch fugitives," Goyeneche says.
We know from recent experience that simply making the criminal justice system more efficient will not solve our crime problems. Former Mayor Marc Morial and Police Superintendent Richard Pennington succeeded in cutting the murder rate in half -- but their success was short-lived. We now need to hear from Mayor Ray Nagin. What is his plan to make New Orleans safe? That question is more urgent than ever.