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A CROSSROADS ON CRIME

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January 9, 2007
New Orleans, Louisiana 

 The New Year was not supposed to start off this way. 2006 had been a disappointment for thousands of people in the greater New Orleans area who were overwhelmed with frustrations over dealing with a federal, state, and local bureaucracy that seemed barely to function at all. 2007 was a chance for a fresh start with hopes that the pace of recovery would pick up dramatically.

The pace did pick up, but in the worst of all ways. In an eight-day period at the beginning of the year, more people died in New Orleans than in Iraq. Since December 29th, eight military deaths were reported in the war zone. In the Crescent City, 14 murders took place. Two mothers were shot and killed in their homes only a few hours apart as their children stood by.

NBC led off lead its nightly newscast this past Friday telling the nation that the New Orleans murder rate was 30% higher than any other U.S. city. “The killers are growing more brazen, striking in broad daylight and using assault rifles, even with police just 30 yards away. And witnesses refused to talk.”

Yes, there were individuals who were arrested and charged with first-degree murder last week. Tragically, they were all police officers.

“We have a culture, a certain population in the city with an intent on committing violent crime,” said the assistant superintendent of police. “They feel no repercussions; they have no fear of police.”

There are lots of reasons being offered for the violence: drug dealing, poverty, retaliation killings, fewer cops and a dysfunctional legal system. And over time, there are some creative ways to deal with all these problem areas. But while neighborhood leaders, the politicians, and the business community hash out solutions, something still has to be done in the immediacy to stop the killings.

Here’s the problem. It’s hard to point to just where the buck stops. Peter Scharf is a criminologist at the University of New Orleans, who was on my radio show last week. He says: “This alarming homicide rate is a function of the failure of these different municipal entities to coordinate any real productive way.”

So who’s going to take the point? Who’s going to take the lead? In the short run, it has to be the Governor. Any immediate solutions are going to require money and manpower. And right now, they both need to come from the state capital. Yes, it’s a fact that there are 300 Louisiana national guardsmen, and 50 state troopers in the city of New Orleans. But it is becoming more and more obvious that a regional effort has to be undertaken to effectively deal with this major increase in violence.

A crime wave does not stop at the Orleans Parish line. Jefferson Parish has seen a dramatic increase in violent crime, with 61 murders reported last year. The crime rate is up in St. Tammany and other surrounding parishes. That’s why a regional effort is necessary.

There is no silver bullet or easy quick fix. But if the Governor would take the lead, here’s a list of specifics that she could embrace and endorse. And she certainly has the tools to bring on support for her plan from the local law enforcement and political community. She can direct them to follow the Golden Rule. She has the gold, some $2.5 billion in state surplus. So here is what should be done:

Immediately form a criminal war council made up of the public officials involved in the criminal justice system throughout the greater New Orleans area. Bring on the Lieutenant Governor as her co-chair. He lives in New Orleans, and he should take on the day in day out duties of making the policies of this new council work. Bring in key business and committee leaders that should include members of the Business Council of New Orleans and community law enforcement activist John Casban. The group will be a little large, but break it down into functioning subcommittees with specific responsibilities. Include former Attorney General Richard Iyoub in a major leadership role. He’s been working with the city in an advisory capacity for the past several months.

Some new proposals will take a little longer to implement, and need to be approached regionally. One regional crime lab, a single regional training academy, and regional lock-up facilities, especially for juveniles, would be a good place to start. The Governor should commit tax dollars for training 200 new police officers as part of a regional pool. Let them be initially assigned and work within one parish office. But have them on call to move into a participating parish when needed for a few weeks or more. Obviously, New Orleans would need most of the contingent immediately. Again, criminals don’t stop at the parish line. More inter-parish cooperation is needed.

How about starting the recruitment with retired military personnel coming home from Iraq? Pay them a bonus up front, and get their commitment to work for at least three years. They are trained, qualified and could be a good new source for new police officers in the metropolitan area.

Some 10 months ago, there was an effort to take a more regional approach to crime prevention. A meeting was held in Washington, DC with both Louisiana local and federal officials in attendance. The area sheriffs signed on to such a regional plan, but the chief in New Orleans told the group he would have to clear it with the Mayor. The group is still waiting for an answer. So is there a lack of cooperation from the very place where the biggest problem exists?

In New Orleans, commit more national guardsmen to beef up the 300 personnel already there. In Colorado, the Governor has committed more than 600 guardsmen to help feed cattle due to recent blizzards. If you can bring in more guardsmen for cattle, we should be willing to do it for safety.

The heads of both the State Police and the National Guard should be more involved in daily decisions, rather than just allowing the city police to assign these state troops to certain areas for patrol. Look, it’s no secret the National Guard is in the city. Stories have appeared worldwide about the raging violence going on throughout the area. So go ahead and heighten the visibility of both the National Guard and the State Police.

Put a number of police officers on bicycles in key crime neighborhoods. This works well in a number of cities including Baton Rouge. They can rap with neighbors on the street, and be a more direct and personal presence than in a patrol car.

As part of the Governor’s funding commitment, how about a plan to develop a neighborhood watch program? Let local neighborhood groups enlist residents to work their surrounding area for so many hours a week by driving the streets in a given location. Groups with a plan could be eligible for mileage reimbursement to cover their expenses. They would have no law enforcement authority, but would be the extended “eyes and ears” of the local area.

Have every city and parish employee go through several days of alertness training, to again be the “eyes and ears” on the streets. Numerous public employees travel throughout a given area each day. Have they been trained to watch out for any suspicious activity? Are they carrying a card in their wallets giving a phone number to call to report such activity? Resources are limited so let’s better use those who are paid public employees and who are on the streets.

There are curfew laws on the books right now. State law requires any driver under 18 to be off the streets after 9:00 pm unless there is an emergency or the driver is on the way to work. The city has a similar curfew for young people out on foot. But it is presently not being enforced. It’s time to take a much tougher stance on this required curfew.

Baton Rouge has an aggressive program identifying career criminals. Their activities are monitored and they are watched and even visited where local police officers let them know they are under surveillance, and if they as much as spit on the sidewalk, the hammer will be dropped on them. The list is updated regularly. There is a career criminal’s unit made up of both the Police Department and the District Attorney’s office. When such a unit was proposed in New Orleans, the local District Attorney opposed such a creation. The Governor should insist one be created.

You get the idea. There is no re-inventing the wheel here. A review of better run police departments will reveal other creative suggestions like getting local churches involved in community outreach programs. But there is a price. That’s where the Governor comes in. The state is sitting on some $2.5 billion in surplus. A commitment of some $100 million should be allotted for the programs outlined above. And the Louisiana Congressional Delegation should go to work on tapping several existing federal funding sources to fight crime.

Yes, some other regions of the state will complain. But there is too much for the whole state at stake, and a short-term commitment needs to be made. Look folks. News of the New Orleans crime wave is being regularly reported in news articles worldwide. The bleeding has to stop, because the image of this city being the murder capital of America will bring tourism and opportunities for new business development to a grinding halt. If we can try to attract a steel mill and pay out one billion dollars, it would seem to be reasonable to spend 1/25th of the present state surplus on regional crime containment.

If there is not an aggressive, coordinated crime prevention effort, led by the Governor, and put in place in the coming weeks, then all other “Bring New Orleans Back” efforts will pale and languish. If a community is not safe, growth and recovery comes to a standstill. This whole region is now in the crossfire. There has never been a more important time for leadership.

“He who does not prevent a crime when he can,
encourages it, and the problem will fester and grow.”
[Lat., Qui non vetat peccare, cum possit, jubet.]
– Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca), Troades (CCXCI)

Peace and Justice.

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s weekly column appears in a number of newspapers throughout the State of Louisiana. You can read Jim’s Blog, and take his weekly poll, plus read his columns going back to the fall of 2002 by going to his own website at http://www.jimbrownla.com.

Also, tune in Jim’s radio show on thenew995fm.com from New Orleans. It is streamed live on the worldwide web at www.thenew995fm.com from 8:00 until 11:00 am, weekdays.

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