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The True Police


The true police are the people," Warren Woodfork, New Orleans' first African-American police chief, once said. Last week -- 500 days after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city -- the true police of New Orleans spoke out. An estimated 5,000 crime-weary residents marched on City Hall, calling for an end to the violence that has made our city the nation's murder capital "by many measures," according to The New York Times. Dozens of Magazine Street shop owners closed their doors for several hours in sympathetic protest.

Accompanied by somber drumbeats, the demonstrators grieved openly for the murdered, the raped, the wounded and the memory of a safer New Orleans. Lynne Neitzschman, 63, a French Quarter resident, wore a placard that read, "Afraid to walk the streets." She shared a sentiment that many natives now harbor: "I would leave in a heartbeat, but I'm from here."

Landscape architect Steve Coenen, 55, carried a sign that read, "I nearly died. I was shot in the chest. Eddie Jordan did nothing." It happened three years ago, Coenen says. Prosecutors got a confession from one of two suspected armed robbers, but both were released eventually, the victim says, and threatening phone calls followed.

Across Perdido Street from City Hall, someone waved a huge white flag with "S.O.S." scrawled in blood-red letters. Many protesters called for the removal of Mayor Ray Nagin, Police Chief Warren Riley and District Attorney Eddie Jordan Jr. "FEDERALIZE NOLA," one placard read. Another inquired: "C. Ray? Not Lately."

Skeptics doubted the extraordinary demonstration would have any affect on the crime rate. We disagree. In fact, we saw ample evidence that Jan. 11 may be a watershed date in the city's post-Katrina history. The demonstrators showed a capacity for political courage and racial unity that our leaders have lacked.

Yes, racial unity. Almost one year to the day after Nagin's divisive "Chocolate City" speech on the Martin Luther King Day, black and white New Orleanians from all walks of life and all parts of town marched and prayed together for a safer city. After the divisive mayor's race last spring, who would have thought such a coalition possible? One of the high points came when a majority-black procession from crime-wracked Central City marched up Perdido Street -- to a hero's welcome from other demonstrators and mostly white CBD workers on their lunch-hour. Going forward, such diverse coalitions will be essential to fighting crime and restoring community confidence in NOPD.

Community activist Robert Goodman said his schizophrenic brother Ronald, 47, ran out of medicine and was killed during an encounter with a police SWAT team on the West Bank May 9. "I'm here today because of my brother," said Goodman, a neighborhood activist and ex-convict. "And I want to make society a better place. It's not a black or white thing, as we know now."

"We need to repair relations between police and the community," said NOPD Sgt. Donovan Livaccari, a spokesperson for the local Fraternal Order of Police. Pastor John Raphael Jr. of New Hope Baptist Church -- a former second-generation NOPD officer who helped organize the Central City march -- is among the area clergy who can help us bridge those divides.

Political will is also essential. Organizers wisely refused to let Nagin and other officials address the rally. Instead, they were forced to listen to painful stories of losses to crime and dunning criticisms of their performance to date. "I heard you loud and clear," Nagin said later. "I heard everything that you said. I want to make sure we continue to work together to make the city safer."

We'll see.

Two days earlier, Nagin, Riley and Jordan announced a series of anti-crime initiatives to stop the murders. UNO criminologist Peter Scharf dismissed the briefing as another collection of tactics -- not the comprehensive strategy the city needs to end its cycle of violence. The 20 deputies that Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman will lend the city for street patrols are welcome, but hardly a major buildup. And the introduction of foot patrols will be difficult to sustain during the ongoing police personnel crisis. Drug and alcohol stops between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. are under way, when 27 percent of all murders in the city occur. The checkpoints are already drawing fire from the ACLU.

Elsewhere, the city plans to have 200 surveillance cameras on the streets by the end of the year. Some civil rights lawyers would rather see cameras mounted in police cars -- as an accountability tool. We agree. Car cameras might also protect the city and the officers from vexatious litigation.

Tactics aside, the crime reduction successes and police accountability reforms of the 1990s showed that we can achieve a safer city. Both endeavors require constant vigilance, however.

Members of the City Council have threatened to use the power of the purse to hold NOPD and the criminal justice system accountable. James Carter, chair of the council's committee on crime, says the council needs "buy-in" from the local criminal justice system on a series of "best practices" for ending the cycle of violence. More cops, courts and jail cells won't do the trick alone. We need strong, effective and forthcoming leadership at City Hall, NOPD and in the DA's office along with short-term, medium- and long-range strategies -- not more excuses.

As last week's demonstration reminded cops and politicians alike, the true police are the people.

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