Eddie Jordan, who from 1994 to 2001 served as the first African-American U.S. Attorney in Louisiana, last week took office as the first black elected district attorney in New Orleans history. Jordan, 50, took office Jan. 13 vowing to attack both the city's resurgent violent crime rate and public corruption. "The time has come to reform a system that has given killers reason to believe they can get away with murder," he said. We wholeheartedly agree.
During a September campaign interview with Gambit Weekly, Jordan spoke longingly of how, as children growing up in Pontchartrain Park, he and his brother and sister could walk to their school and church undisturbed by the scourge of drugs and violence that has since decimated many New Orleans neighborhoods. "We never feared for our personal safety," Jordan said. "I really want everyone in New Orleans -- every man, woman and child -- to enjoy the sense of security that I had growing up."
To that end, witness- and victim-protection will be a top priority of the Jordan administration. We have a suggested starting point: Jordan and his prosecuting attorneys should attend the funerals of the more than 200 people who die violent deaths in our city each year. Why? First, to express sympathy to the families on behalf of the city. Second, to send a message to the killers that the victims will not be forgotten. Today, some mothers are not allowed to bury their murdered children in peace -- especially after gangland killings. Murderous thugs have been known to attend their victims' funeral services to intimidate anyone who may be considering retaliation or cooperating with law enforcement.
It's a cold-blooded and apparently effective tactic, which we first heard about in 1998 when we reported that one out of every three violent crime cases brought by police to then-District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. had collapsed because of a lack of witness cooperation. "I have seen funerals where you see groups of young men show up," says Bill Rousselle, a public relations consultant and former board member of Crimestoppers Inc. "If you know the victim and you know the people, you know these are not the man's friends. There is a real brazenness and openness about who are the kingpins in the neighborhoods and they don't do anything to disguise it."
This is the kind of Mafia mentality that Jordan is up against. A New Orleans-born prosecutor in another parish, who asked not to be identified, says he hopes the new district attorney will draw the line at victims' funerals. "Until [prosecutors] are not afraid to be at those funerals and show that they care, why should anyone else care?" the prosecutor says, noting other district attorneys embrace the practice of attending funerals.
Some New Orleans police officers occasionally attend homicide funerals as a deterrent to gangland retaliation. We think Jordan should make the practice a policy. We realize his assistants work hard and need raises -- a situation Jordan promises to address quickly. We also understand that the military reserve call-up for a possible war in Iraq has left most local law enforcement strapped for personnel. Making assistants attend funerals adds to their workload, but we take heart that Jordan is not the only socially conscious law enforcement chief in these parts. He joins NOPD Superintendent Eddie Compass and Theophile Duroncelet of the U.S. Marshal's Service. We look to these men and others to seek creative solutions to make inner-city neighborhoods safe again.
"Eddie Jordan goes into office with the support of the black community," says civil rights lawyer Ron Wilson. "People believe that Eddie will come out into their communities."
One tactic alone does not make a strategy, of course. The new district attorney plans to assist the feds in the ongoing City Hall corruption investigation. He also vows to keep the same level of vigilance over police misconduct he initiated as U.S. Attorney. We urge Jordan to create specialized prosecution units to attack public corruption, domestic violence, elderly abuse and crimes against school children. He should also reinvigorate the Economic Crimes Unit, which in the early 1990s successfully pursued insurance fraud cases right up to the office of the state insurance commissioner.
Jordan's position today is similar to that of Mayor Ray Nagin after his inauguration in May. It is difficult to hit the ground running in an office that needs fundamental change; it is not easy to know where to start and even tougher to know who to trust. Jordan has fewer resources and more accountability to the public than when he was U.S. Attorney. But he has the public's support. Eddie Jordan should now take the prosecutor's office to the schools, churches and the funerals of our city's homicide victims. He is the new gatekeeper to the local criminal justice system. He should lead a cooperative effort to ensure witness protection in our city -- and he can start by helping the families of murder victims bury their loved ones in peace.