When Gambit Weekly sent a reporter and photographer on a morning ride with the New Orleans police Violent Offender Warrant Squad (VOWS) last month, we found a disturbing story ("The Warrant Squad," Dec. 9). A shrinking squad of cops looking for countless fugitives seemed dramatic enough, considering NOPD's manpower crisis and the city's nation-leading homicide rate. But the obvious, widespread indifference of children to SWAT-trained cops sweeping into their inner-city neighborhoods was even more jarring.
On one occasion, three VOWS cops -- with guns drawn -- entered an Uptown crack house to search for a violent fugitive. Four other officers surrounded the house. One cop stepped over a large pool of drying blood from an earlier altercation. At that moment, a cluster of uniformed schoolgirls passed nearby. Any childlike curiosity was missing from their eyes. If alarm is the parent of action, the apparently widespread indifference of innocents to such drama is a sign that we may be a more troubled city than we care to admit. "The reality is that the city has gotten used to a certain level of carnage, or acceptable losses," says Peter Scharf, director of the University of New Orleans Center for Society, Law and Justice.
Some chilling and previously unpublished statistics are found in a recent proposal to the U.S. Department of Justice for the federal funding of a modern homicide information system for the NOPD. "For more than 15 years, New Orleans has consistently faced one of the highest homicide rates of any city in the U.S.," says the joint proposal by Scharf, Police Chief Eddie Compass, and New Orleans Police Foundation president Robert Stellingworth. During this period, almost 5,000 people have been murdered in the city. "Assuming that 4 persons are wounded for each victim killed by gunfire (a very conservative estimate), there are more than 20,000 incidents within the records of NOPD homicide and violent crimes records," the proposal states.
The proposal also notes that women are "over-represented" among NOPD homicide cases. Since 1988, more than 700 women have been murdered in New Orleans; approximately two-thirds of those cases are unsolved. "Given that at least three recent serial killer patterns from the early 1990s through the present have occurred, multi-agency sharing of homicide-related data is of the greatest importance to the region," the proposal states.
We applaud Compass' recent initiatives to solve cold-case homicides and to clean up murderous hot spots by partnering with federal agencies against warring drug gangs. However, we must note the contrast between the stark assessment of the homicide problem in the grant proposal and the comparatively optimistic tones of NOPD's quarterly crime reports in recent years.
As our cover story noted, New Orleans is on track to lead all 71 major cities in per capita homicides -- for the second year in a row. The good news is that we know we can stop crime from strangling our city, because we did it after New Orleans became the nation's murder capital in 1994. But we need both independently audited police crime stats and a frank assessment of the problem.
Our story also showed that no single law enforcement entity could accurately estimate how many fugitives roam the metro area, though our police sources estimate the number is in the thousands. This is unacceptable. Former Chief Richard Pennington made fugitive incarceration a priority when he created the VOWS squad and an inter-agency task force after finding 49,000 outstanding warrants in New Orleans in 1996. That kind of effort is needed again -- regionally.
The NOPD warrant squad's fugitive-arrest statistics are impressive, but they fall short if only 38 percent result in criminal convictions -- the Metropolitan Crime Commission's average for all NOPD arrests. The public wants the cops, the courts and corrections to share a real-time, integrated computer data system so that the just among us remain free and the unjust are locked up. On this point, the entire criminal justice system should be held accountable -- not just police.
As for our police manpower crisis, USA Today observed in its Dec. 2 cover story on proposed cuts in the federal Community Oriented Policing Services program: "In New Orleans, where the COPS program helped officials add more than 400 officers from 1996 to 2000, nearly 100 have been cut in the last three years. The city now has 1,610 officers." Mayor Ray Nagin's plan this year to raise NOPD's force to 2,000 by the year 2005 now seems a long shot. We need to focus on retaining our more experienced officers through better pay. Because overworked cops are more prone to disciplinary problems, we once again urge the City Council to find emergency money for an NOPD-backed plan for an independent monitor to curb police misconduct.
We should all be outraged that crime is killing so many New Orleanians -- and robbing so many more of their innocence. It is indeed criminal when children in our city are so unfazed by police hunts for violent fugitives in their own small worlds.