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Crime time 

Robert Morris of Uptown Messenger reports that the New Orleans City Council and state politicians are considering tighter scrutiny of the NOPD

click to enlarge NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas' performance is being questioned by state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

NOPD Chief Ronal Serpas' performance is being questioned by state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson.

In a city where the pace of new anti-crime programs is matched year-for-year with funerals for children slain by stray bullets, some New Orleans City Council members and state lawmakers are discussing ways to determine whether any of the efforts underway are actually working.

  The creation of "Saving Our Sons," "NOLA For Life" and the Multi-Agency Gang Unit have been bookended by the deaths of 2-year-old Jeremy Galmon in 2010, 2-year-old Keira Holmes in 2011, 5-year-old Briana Allen last year, as well as the deaths of 1-year-old Londyn Samuels and 11-year-old Arabian Gayles just days apart at the end of this summer. All were struck down by gunfire.

  District B City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell had been in office only nine months when Samuels was killed in her district. Within days, she convened a summit of other council members, state lawmakers, judges and law enforcement officials to discuss what more can be done to stem the tide of violence. A common theme emerged: Everywhere, there is a need for more oversight — of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and its leadership, of the anti-crime programs in place, of the budgets for those entities and of the state law-enforcement agencies that also play crucial roles.

  "Doing nothing — I think that's unacceptable," Cantrell said.

  "Historically, the council has been really hands-off on the police in general," said state Sen. J.P. Morrell, a participant at Cantrell's summit. "Both on the state and local level, we have to get more invested in the nuts and bolts of the different crime-fighting tools available to us."

  One major area of concern is the number of police officers on the streets. In early August, WWL-TV reported that slightly more than 1,100 officers were on the active-duty roster, down from more than 1,500 in 2010 and with an officer leaving roughly every other day. There is a new recruit class of 24 officers, but WWL-TV counted 37 officers leaving the department in a two-month period this summer. It is unclear what the city is doing to stanch the flow, a situation the lawmakers described as untenable.

  "We immediately need more police," City Council President Jackie Clarkson said.

  "Morale is extremely low," Cantrell said. "Leadership matters. We can't even keep the officers we have."

The numbers for the next recruit class are even smaller, and Morrell said there may be a number of reasons why. Officers are required to live in New Orleans, but that is increasingly difficult on a police officer's salary, and that policy limits applicants who may have other reasons, such as their children's schools, for wanting to live elsewhere, Morrell added. Other jurisdictions offer financial incentives and cost-of-living bonuses for officers who live in their cities to encourage new officers to move into the city voluntarily, rather than limiting the applicant pool by making it a requirement.

  Further complicating recruiting efforts: the restrictions on off-duty details as a result of the consent decree limit officers' ability to moonlight, Morrell said. Officers allowed to work details must not have any pending disciplinary actions. The upshot is that some of the department's best officers are seeing their salaries decrease the most.

  "These are a group of people we depend on, but we're not giving them the resources that show them they have any worth," said District D Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.

  Even seemingly minor policy changes can have an enormous impact, lawmakers said. Many members of the armed forces have tattoos, contrary to the department's new ban on body art. As a result, a tattooed Navy SEAL returning from overseas has to consider wearing long sleeves to cover them in the New Orleans summer if he wants to work for NOPD.

  State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson says the department's recruiting problems go straight to the top. "No one wants to work for this chief," Carter-Peterson said. "That's not something we should tap dance around. It's not working. His leadership is not working."

The staffing issues also figure prominently into another area: the departmental budget. The council approved a budget that called for 1,275 officers; if the actual number is falling below that figure, how is the money being spent? Several lawmakers and council members noted their participation in the city budget seems limited to the month or so of hearings before it is approved each year, rather than members receiving updates on progress throughout the year. Several lawmakers said the City Council also needs more information about how the federal-city consent decree will be funded.

  "We need to be somewhat more involved in the formation of the budget — not just making sure it is balanced in the last month — and moving small amounts of money around," said District A City Councilwoman Susan Guidry.

  Several officials said the council's Criminal Justice Committee, chaired by Guidry, would be the ideal vehicle to seek more answers. Guidry noted that the committee has been aggressive in seeking individual budgets for agencies funded by the city; others suggested the council needs to ask NOPD leadership more direct questions.

  Murder rates are down, but still astronomical, and City Council Vice President Stacy Head said she is unsure whether they tell an accurate story. More important, she said, should be the rate of shootings with injuries, because all that separates some shootings from murders is the aim, divine intervention or the skill of a surgeon.

  Head said the City Council should set its own accountability measures and hold NOPD to those standards. "The only real power we have as a council at this point is holding the executive branch accountable and trying to push them to do a better job," she said. "The particular decisions as to how money is spent lie in the executive branch. As council members, we have an oversight obligation to make it clear that those efforts are not acceptable when they are not acceptable."

  Head said she wants more data on why police officers are leaving and suggested the issues may be better addressed in a special City Council meeting on NOPD alone.

  "We hear that there is low morale. We hear that there are problems, but we're not getting regular updates on whether that's accurate," Head said.

Finally, although the regional murder rate is highest in Orleans Parish, the burden for addressing those murders does not fall solely on City Hall and NOPD. State lawmakers said that many agencies under their purview, such as the Department of Children and Family Services, need more scrutiny as well.

  Probation and parole officers fall under the state Department of Corrections, and several of the lawmakers agreed they are severely overworked and an underutilized resource. About four dozen officers are assigned to oversee about 7,000 offenders, resulting in very little oversight at all, Morrell said.

  "One of the greatest tools you have is a parole and probation officer," Morrell said. "If a parolee's house smells of marijuana and crack, they just walk in and that person just goes to jail. It's one of the most seamless ways to target people who perpetrate violent crime."

  Participants said meetings to discuss these problems have been held for years, with little to show for it, but that this time something seemed different.

  Andrea Samuels and Keion Reed, the parents of Londyn Samuels, the 13-month-old killed last month, addressed the lawmakers at the start of the meeting. They talked about the pain of losing their daughter and their frustration at the violence and lack of respect for human life on their streets. They pleaded for protection for their community, and for lawmakers to find a way to act.

  "I think it's hard for people to talk over and talk around each other, when you see a young mother grappling with that loss," Morrell said. "When you see them there and see what they're going through, it immediately invests you in the conversation you're about to have."

  "Sometimes I get this feeling that people in elected office have become numb and that upsets me," Head said. "It's evident from [Cantrell's] call and the response from so many elected officials that there's a lot more frustration and anger in trying to fix the problems than a pessimist would believe."

  "Maybe this is different," Cantrell said. "This is not the same-old, talking about the issue where we do nothing," Cantrell said. "People felt like this was a start."

— This story was produced with our partners at Uptown Messenger. Read more at www.uptownmessenger.com.

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