Five teenage sons of New Orleans died in a hail of bullets in the early morning hours before Father's Day, June 18, near the corner of Danneel and Josephine streets. Police suspect drugs and revenge triggered the Central City massacre, the worst mass murder in New Orleans in more than 11 years. The five ignominious deaths were tragically typical of a city inured to violence before Hurricane Katrina, but the sheer number of casualties this time -- the largest since the storm -- compelled an infuriated public to demand action.
Outrage is often the author of dramatic change.
Within 48 hours of the massacre, the mothers of the victims stood solemnly under the bright lights of the City Council Chamber in City Hall. Joining them were Mayor Ray Nagin and members of the newly elected City Council; each vowed unity and a new resolve against an old New Orleans nemesis -- violent crime. "This is our line in the sand," Nagin said.
Two days later, Gov. Kathleen Blanco sent 300 members of the National Guard and 60 State Police troopers to help NOPD grapple with a rising tide of street crime. The governor said the extra security had been requested by the city two weeks before the massacre. The horrific killings simply expedited the state's response, Blanco said, noting, "The situation is urgent."
We welcome the extra security, and we don't quarrel with the mayor's decision to seek the Guard's assistance. However, the decision to craft the call for military force in relative secrecy created some problems that could have been avoided. Calling out the Guard to respond to urban violence is a drastic measure. Understandably, public reaction to the speedy deployment has ranged from profound relief to increased anxiety, especially among hospitality industry leaders. Instead of building support in advance among local business, civic, religious and political leaders, the mayor announced the immediate mobilization as a fait accompli. Although welcomed by many, the news suggested to some -- particularly the nation's media -- that our fragmented city had lost all control. "This does not bolster our confidence that the city will be able to govern itself," The New York Times opined last week.
We see it differently. Yes, the NOPD struggled to manage the city's violent crime rate even before Katrina. Since the storm and despite the help of the FBI, the department has been unable to stop the resurgence of murderous drug activity. NOPD does not enjoy the trust and confidence of all the public, whose cooperation is essential for criminal prosecution. "The real problem -- why people don't come forward -- is that there is no connection between the police and the community," says Norris Henderson, a spokesperson for Safe Streets/Strong Communities. Henderson's sister was shot in the leg during a Martin Luther King parade earlier this year.
The department also has suffered from disciplinary problems, poor pay and low morale -- with morale really plunging after 80 percent of the force lost their homes to the storm. For those reasons, the city's call for reinforcements is a major step toward turning the department around. "It takes a lot of courage to say you need help," says Anthony Radosti, vice president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission and a retired NOPD veteran. We agree.
At the same time, it would be naive to think our violence can be stopped solely by better policing or even more National Guard troops. "If someone has it in their heart to kill you, he is going to try and kill you," says Al Mims, a state Parole Board member whose father's killer was never brought to justice.
Crime in New Orleans is a complex cultural problem, deeply rooted in social ills, a weak economy, failing schools and failed government systems. Since Katrina, says civil rights lawyer Mary Howell, "Our criminal justice system has collapsed. We have people in jail who haven't seen a lawyer since last year." In addition, Katrina's closing of public hospitals has put crime victims at greater risk. Mental health care is nearly absent; almost 90 percent of our psychiatrists are gone. Stressed-out cops are thus left to deal with increasing numbers of mental patients who become violent without their medications. Simply put, there is no quick or easy fix.
The City Council has called for a crime summit. That's a good idea, but in the mean time we need candid, daily communications from City Hall on the progress of recovery in general, and the fight against crime in particular. Tell us how we can best protect ourselves, post-Katrina. Above all, we need leadership -- and that mantle is squarely on Mayor Nagin's shoulders. Despite our past differences with the mayor, we believe he has the potential to lead.
Last week at City Hall, Monalisa Hunter, the mother of two of the massacre victims, had a message for her son's killers: "Ya'll took my kids from me for no reason. I don't care what they say -- drugs, retaliation -- they don't deserve this."
And she wept.
Mayor Nagin put his arm around the grieving mother and held her close. With a simple act of kindness, Nagin showed that New Orleans cares for all of its sons. There is strength in that kind of compassion, and it's easily shared. Symbolically, we hope the mayor's gesture will prove no less important in the fight against crime than calling out the National Guard.