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Death and the City 

GUEST EDITORIAL: AS 2009 GETS OFF TO A VIOLENT START, A CRIME WRITER SUGGESTS NEW ORLEANS' APPROACH TO NON-VIOLENT OFFENDERS IS A BIG PART OF THE PROBLEM.

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New Orleans, the murder capital of the United States, recently made Foreign Policy magazine's list of the "Murder Capitals of the World," along with cities like Bogota, Colombia, and Cape Town, South Africa. Yet arrests for violent crime account for about 10 percent of arrests here. That's right: In a city wracked with violence — murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery — a sliver of all the arrests made by the New Orleans Police Department is for violent crime.

  Despite claims by the NOPD and the Orleans Parish District Attorney's office, there is no serious effort by law enforcement in New Orleans to combat violent crime. Poor law enforcement practices are at the root of our high levels of violence. There is no deterrent to committing violent crime when the vast majority of the NOPD's arrests are for minor municipal offenses — such as disturbing the peace — and traffic offenses.

  Yet the NOPD is not unique among police departments across the country in its skewed priorities. In 2007, according to the FBI, law enforcement nationwide cleared just 44.5 percent of violent crimes (a crime is "cleared" when a suspect is arrested, charged with the commission of the offense and then turned over to the court for prosecution). Clearance rates for violent crime have fallen significantly over the past few decades as law enforcement has made increasing numbers of drug arrests.

  As David Simon, a former journalist and creator of the HBO series The Wire, wrote in Time last year: "The drug war has ravaged law enforcement ... in cities where police agencies commit the most resources to arresting their way out of their drug problems, the arrest rates for violent crime — murder, rape, aggravated assault — have declined. In Baltimore, where we set The Wire, drug arrests have skyrocketed over the past three decades, yet in that same span, arrest rates for murder have gone from 80% and 90% to half that."

  Simon's assertion is backed up by the FBI's own stats for arrests nationwide in 2007: That year, law enforcement made more arrests for drug abuse violations than for any other criminal offense.

  But the scale of the violent crime problem in New Orleans is so vast — Baltimore's murder rate is about 37.5 per 100,000 residents while the murder rate in New Orleans is nearly 65 per 100,000 residents, according to Tulane University criminologist Peter Scharf — that increasing the number of arrests for violent crime here to match that of police departments in other crime wracked cities will not suffice. The NOPD needs to implement dramatic reforms now particularly as we enter a recession that is likely to drive up violent crime rates even further:

  1. Increase the use of citations and summonses for non-violent offenders. Arresting non-violent offenders — particularly for traffic and municipal offenses — is an enormous waste of resources in any city, all the more so in the murder capital of the United States.

  2. Target violent drug dealers instead of making mass arrests for drug possession which do little or nothing to curb violent crime. If huge numbers of arrests — particularly for drug crimes, which in 2007 constituted 55 percent of arrests as opposed to a mere 10 percent for violent felonies — made our city safer we'd have one of the safest cities in America. Instead of making huge numbers of drug arrests, law enforcement resources should be directed against those who operate open air drug markets, the most violent and destructive form of the drug trade.

  "All drug dealers supply drugs," wrote UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman in the January/February 2007 issue of The American Interest, "only some use violence, or operate flagrantly, or employ juveniles as apprentice dealers ... If we target and severely sentence the nastiest dealers rather than the biggest ones, we can greatly reduce the amount of gunfire, the damage drug dealing does to the neighborhoods around it and the attractive nuisance the drug trade offers to teenagers."

  3. Provide a real deterrent against violent crime. Criminals are deterred from committing crime not by the length of a potential prison sentence, but by the swiftness of their apprehension and the certainty of their punishment. Because violent criminals are rarely arrested — let alone prosecuted— in New Orleans, there is no deterrent to committing violent crime. Indeed, the brutal armed robbers who practice their trade in the Lower French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny have grown so comfortable that they stroll around these neighborhoods committing several armed robberies in a single evening, often with awful consequences like the recent slaying of French Quarter bartender Wendy Byrne. Moving cops away from making arrests for minor traffic and municipal offenses will allow them to focus on violent crime hot spots and provide a strong deterrent to committing such crimes.

  4. Clean up the NOPD. There are too many instances of the NOPD not doing its job — for example, in the wake of Byrne's murder NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley admitted "there were some officers who were not patrolling in their areas assigned." And worse, engaging in potentially criminal conduct (i.e., the New Year's Day shooting of Adolph Grimes III, a young man with no criminal record who was shot 14 times by NOPD officers). A cleanup of the department is in order.

  New Orleans' crime declines in the late 1990s and early 2000s were due in part to the anti-corruption efforts of then-top cop Richard Pennington. Under his stewardship, hundreds of officers were arrested, suspended or resigned while under investigation. Such measures will likely not be necessary this time around, but there's no doubt that weeding out corrupt cops yields tangible results in the fight against violent crime.

It's critical to institute meaningful criminal justice reform. The same ineffective ideas — more cops, more incarceration, more drug arrests — will not suffice, as they have already failed us. We have a fairly robust NOPD at around 1,500 cops; Louisiana incarcerates more of its citizens than any other state in the nation; and Orleans Parish has one of the highest rates of admission to prison for drug offenses in the nation.

  The failures of the criminal justice system in New Orleans were once symbolized by the "misdemeanor murder," criminal slang for being released from prison after catching a murder charge — thanks to Article 701 of the Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure, which states an indictment must be filed within 60 days of the arrest if the defendant is being held for a felony. The number of 701s declined steeply after the departure of former D.A. Eddie Jordan in late 2007. But the NOPD makes so few arrests for violent crime that criminals can now rightfully boast about getting away with every form of violent crime imaginable. Thanks to the profound misallocation of law enforcement resources in New Orleans, you're more likely to end up in Orleans Parish Prison for a traffic offense than for armed robbery or murder. To be fair, historical dysfunction at the District Attorney's office has also played a role in the inability to bring murderers to justice: In 2008 there were zero trials and zero convictions in the 179 murders committed, an even more dismal performance than 2006, when the DA's office secured one conviction in the 162 murders committed that year.

  Though new DA Leon Cannizzaro seems to grasp the need for reform at his office — particularly the unacceptably high 33 percent dismissal rate — implementation of best practices seems unlikely under Riley. His response to citizen outrage over the January deaths of Wendy Byrne and Ja'Shawn Powell was not to level with the public about the intolerably high levels of violent crime or outline the steps needed to make the police department more effective, but to launch a PR campaign intended to convince New Orleanians that the city isn't as dangerous as they believe. And the PR campaign was buttressed by misleading statistics: Riley said the raw number of armed robberies is down from 1996, a useless comparison as the city's population was significantly higher back then. He also said that the city had a decline in total crime from 2007 to 2008, a dubious claim as a recent analysis by New Orleans Citizen Crime Watch found that as many as 50 percent of violent crimes are under-reported on the city's Web site — all without acknowledging that one-year drops do not constitute a long-term trend and that the murder rate in New Orleans remains higher than that of high-crime cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia.

  Riley was also wrong to lambaste the "perception that crime is so out of control [in the French Quarter] that it's at a level that is unforeseen." Arguing that outrage over crime from citizens of the French Quarter — or any other neighborhood — is rooted in a misperception is ludicrous: the post-Katrina period has seen nearly 600 residents murdered and in 2007, the murder rate reached a nightmarish level of nearly 80 per 100,000 residents.   

  New Orleanians are right to be furious. It's no exaggeration to characterize crime as out of control. It's long past time for Riley to implement the best practices that can help a fed-up citizenry reclaim the streets of New Orleans from violent crime.

Ethan Brown is a New Orleans journalist who writes frequently about drug policy, street crime and the justice system. He is the author of two books: Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler and Snitch: Informers, Cooperators and the Corruption of Justice. His third book will be published in 2009.

click to enlarge The funeral for Hot 8 Brass Band member Dinerral Shavers.
  • The funeral for Hot 8 Brass Band member Dinerral Shavers.
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