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Preparing for War

More than 150 homicides occurred in our city during the first half of this year -- more violent deaths than the 146 U.S. soldiers killed in the war in Iraq through May 1.


Mayor Ray Nagin last week declared a full-blown war on crime in New Orleans. "Today, the New Orleans City Council and this administration is saying enough is enough, and we're fighting back with everything that we have," said Nagin. The time is more than ripe. And the war analogy is more than rhetorical.

Orleans Parish coroner's records show there were 150 homicides during the first half of this year. That's more violent deaths in our city than the 146 U.S. soldiers killed in the war in Iraq through May 1, when an end was declared to major hostilities. "We have allowed ourselves to slip," says Peter Scharf, a criminologist and director of the University of New Orleans Center for Society Law and Justice.

Indeed, New Orleans is on track to become the nation's murder capitol for the first time since 1994. Homicide figures for the first half of 2003 show that we are four times more dangerous than Chicago and seven times more dangerous than New York City, Scharf says. Boston, whose population far exceeds New Orleans, recorded only 19 homicides through the first half of 2003.

We should be outraged. Instead, we have become complacent, encouraged by quarterly police reports that compare our crime rates to previous local records -- rather than cities that compete with us for tourists and college students.

We welcome Nagin's ambitious "seven-point plan" to fight crime and improve accountability within the criminal justice system. The mayor's top priority is to raise the New Orleans Police Department's force to 2,000 officers -- nearly 400 more cops -- by 2005. Secondly, he wants to make NOPD salaries more competitive regionally by eliminating the department's $2,000 pay disadvantage with other police agencies.

The plan also calls for the installation of 1,000 security cameras in strategic "hot spots" identified by NOPD (a proposal that has raised the hackles of civil libertarians). Nagin also plans to integrate the reporting systems of the criminal justice system into scores of mobile data terminals now in police cars.

The $15 million annual price tag for the added police protection would be funded "without raising new taxes -- if there is a concerted effort to update the assessed values of New Orleans properties and make them consistent throughout the city," the mayor says. Nagin justifies his call for funding, noting his proven record of fiscal accountability.

We strongly support Nagin's goal, but we have some questions about how his plan will get us there. "We need to get some sense of the true crime rate," Scharf says. We agree. The city needs deadly honest reporting on the scope of our crime problem. Like other law enforcement nationwide, NOPD uses the archaic federal Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system for counting major felonies each year. With the exception of homicides, the UCR data that NOPD publishes each quarter is flawed because many felonies are underreported. The margin for error in UCR reports is between 30 and 55 percent, Scharf estimates, citing a national study and a lack of uniform accounting rules. "The Enron and WorldCom debacles are waiting to be repeated all over law enforcement," Scharf says.

The crime rate touches hearts and pocketbooks citywide. It affects tourism, property values and political and police careers. The problem becomes worse when politically pressured police massage crime statistics or downgrade citizen reports of felonies to non-UCR offenses. For these reasons, this newspaper has for the past five years called for a routine outside audit of police crime data. We are encouraged that Police Chief Eddie Compass has invited the private Metropolitan Crime Commission to monitor NOPD's ongoing administrative probe of alleged police downgrading in the First District. While that investigation will ultimately canvass all eight police districts and take months to complete, the public wants crime data it can trust right now. Just as Nagin initiated an outside audit that showed city finances were in shambles, the administration should vet NOPD statistics. On a related note, the City Council should push for the independent monitor proposal championed by Councilman Marlin Gusman.

The administration also needs to conduct an inventory of the "wartime" needs of every component of the criminal justice system -- including health care. More than 300 gunshot victims have been admitted to Louisiana Medical Center (Charity Hospital) as of Aug. 1; most are from Orleans Parish, according to spokesperson Jerry Romig. Charity, which faces deep cuts from the state, works closely with the city Emergency Medical Service system to save lives and thereby keep the murder rate down. How will proposed cuts to Charity affect Nagin's war on crime? Plus, more cops mean more arrests. Are we prepared for the war on crime to clog the courts and the jails?

We support Nagin's plan wholeheartedly. For it to work, however, we must have timely and accurate intelligence -- and all elements of the city and the criminal justice system must work together.

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