What a difference a year makes -- unfortunately. In January 2006, New Orleans police said our depopulated city was safer than New York City, which is still a national model.
Today, New Orleans may be one of the most dangerous cities in the country, regardless of whose population estimates you believe. Indeed, the first week of the New Year here saw disturbing images of both rising violence and a crippled criminal justice system, a system whose principals seem far more skilled at fighting one another than fighting thugs and drugs.
On one front, seven NOPD officers were indicted in connection with the shooting deaths of two people and the wounding of four others on the Danziger Bridge in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The indictment sent shock waves through the community and tore the already fractured criminal justice system apart at the seams. Several hundred cops showed up at Central Lock-Up early last week to voice support for their fellow officers as they turned themselves in. Meanwhile, District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. issued a statement saying, "We cannot allow our police officers to shoot and kill our citizens without justification like rabid dogs." Police Chief Warren Riley called a news conference to denounce Jordan's statement as "highly unprofessional" and "prejudicial." The chief, a defendant in civil litigation arising from the Danziger incidents, kept his own thoughts on the case to himself.
Jordan's remarks were indeed inflammatory and unnecessary. At the same time, the sight of NOPD cops -- including nearly a dozen captains -- cheering the "Danziger 7" as "heroes" outside the jail prompted local NAACP President Danatus King to call the spectacle "inappropriate" for law enforcement. King worries about the "chilling effect" the cops' demonstration might have on eyewitnesses in the Danziger case. That's a legitimate concern, and Chief Riley should address that concern as forcefully as he responded to Jordan's remarks. The Danziger 7 case looms as a watershed for NOPD and for the city, but the politics of the case -- and of our criminal justice system -- must not be allowed to put the public's safety at risk.
University of New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf said it best: "The public has to demand that all the silly shit has to stop, and if you don't, then all bets are off."
We agree. New Orleans is a wounded city fighting for its very survival. There were seven murders in the first four days of 2007.
On another front, Chief Riley sought to squelch public alarm over the 161 murders reported by NOPD for 2006. He correctly pointed out that no one knows the post-Katrina population of the city, upon which FBI crime rates are based. We note that the chief's estimate of 275,000 is even higher than the mayor's rosy figure of 250,000. Professor Scharf pegs the population at 220,000 and last year's murder rate at approximately 73 per 100,000 people. Whatever population estimate one chooses to believe -- the exact ratio of murders per 100,000 people is beside the point, really -- our murder rate is far worse than one year ago and nearly (or more than) five times the national average for cities our size. As Anthony Radosti, vice president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission, says, "It's delusional to believe that crime is down."
On a related note, NOPD's use of statistics to support its claims of double-digit drops in crime from 2005, when the city had twice as many people, has served only to deepen public doubts about the force. In particular, suspicions about underreporting of crimes are a festering sore at NOPD that predates the Nagin-Riley administration. The City Council should mandate the annual auditing of crime statistics by outside experts, a long-standing recommendation of the now-defunct Office of Municipal Investigation and this newspaper.
Meanwhile, Mayor Ray Nagin and Chief Riley need to do a better job of convincing the public that New Orleans is getting a handle on crime. If thinking outside the box is what it takes, then Chief Riley ought to look outside the department for deputy chiefs and district commanders.
"At this point," says the MCC's Radosti, himself a retired NOPD detective, "it's obvious that the police department's strategy for fighting crime is either failing or has already failed. If the commanders don't have the answers, they simply need to be replaced." This idea is not new; MCC officials suggested it to Riley months ago.
Meanwhile, we must all remember that fighting crime is everyone's responsibility. Neighborhood organizations and activists must network on crime solutions at the city planning congress this Saturday and at the city's upcoming crime summit (date to be announced). Private foundations and philanthropists can expedite the funding of the proposed community-based "NOCrime" Web site, created by Carole Dahlem, former chief of crime prevention at Tulane University.
Time is of the essence. One in 3 New Orleanians is considering leaving, according to a recent UNO poll. What the public wants to hear from NOPD is not that things aren't so bad, but rather how we are going to feel safer in 2007 than we were in 2006. One week into our "9-1-1 New Year," no one is saying New Orleans is safer than New York.