When Kevin Zeno drops off his daughter at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) every day, he sees a collection of seedy characters hoisting bottles of booze across the street. "They're vagrants, they're breaking into abandoned homes," Zeno said during a town hall meeting at the Holy Angels Convent on St. Claude Avenue July 21. "I hear everybody say that we need more police, we need to get more crime cameras. Nobody's saying we need a youth center, more jobs. What about that?"
Though loitering and drinking in public might not seem like great offenses in a city wracked with violence, it was one of a dozen complaints raised by District C residents in response to the rise in violent crimes in recent weeks. In a passionate two-hour meeting, neighbors described drug dealing on their porches and bullets lodged in their cars — and amidst complaints of those crimes crept the echoes of fear lef over from the Bourbon Street shootings June 29 and another shooting that left one injured earlier this month.
District C New Orleans City Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey organized the town hall meeting, inviting New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) 5th District Commander Christopher D. Goodly to shed light on some of the reasons for the recent rise in crime. The biggest problem, Goodly said, is that he's understaffed. "When I came in 2011, I had 112 officers on staff when I walked through the door," Goodly said. "Right now I'm at 79 ... We're approximately 30 officers short of what I walked in the door with."
Goodly recommended that residents take part in SafeCam NOLA, the NOPD initiative that invites residents to register their personal security cameras in a public database, so that if a crime occurs in the area, police can request footage.
NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas also talked about the discrepancy in staff and addressed some of the ways the department is going about recruiting and keeping more officers. Officers have not had a pay raise, he said, since 2007, adding, "That's shameful."
As public officials interspersed their own comments with those from the few dozen in attendance, the tone of the meeting took a surprising turn. District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro took the mic and compared the meeting to a church congregation, asking each community member to spread good citizenship when walking out into the street.
Arms outstretched, Cannizzaro told the audience: "You know, the most important asset I have in fighting the violent criminal is you. Ladies and gentlemen of this community, probably the most disheartening thing to me, the most disheartening news I hear from victims and witnesses is, 'I'm not going to get involved' ... Those are pejorative terms. I like to think of someone getting involved as being a good citizen.
" ...I drive down the street and see these signs, 'Fix my streets, I pay taxes,'" Cannizzaro said, nearly yelling. "For goodness sake: Make me safe, I pay taxes in the City of New Orleans! ... I'd rather drive down a bumpy street ... I'd rather know that at night, I can walk the streets safely."
After the meeting, Ramsey told Gambit that she was pleased with the level of participation, and that as the council goes into budget hearings for 2015 she will bring with her a number of the issues raised, including officer pay raises and recruitment. "We can't police our way out of crime," she said, and added she would support more community building and educational programs aimed at keeping people safe.
One man at the meeting described making multiple calls to police to report drug activity, but was frustrated that nothing had been done yet. Serpas told Gambit that residents should continue to report any evidence of drug dealing, and that even though it might seem like change is slow, a lot is happening. "We get about a half a million number of calls a year for the city of New Orleans," Serpas said. "That's quite a few number of calls. A lot of our narcotics work, people don't know we're doing it, because that's how we do it. A lot of it is undercover work. It's moving around narcotics dealers in disadvantaged positions. So there's more than one thing going on at a time."
Ramsey is hosting two more meetings to talk about crime in her district in coming weeks. The next one is scheduled for July 24 at the St. Jude Community Center, and there will be another August 5 at the Algiers Regional Library.