But in recent weeks, there they were -- green-uniformed officers and their "cadaver dogs" aiding the city's search for drowning victims in the Lower Nine, six months after Hurricane Katrina.
The storm has changed the way we look at cops, crime, local neighborhoods and each other.
Pre-Katrina, the poor, largely African-American neighborhood was ravaged by drugs and violence -- part of a police district that had led the city in homicides for 10 consecutive years. The neighborhood was no stranger to police misconduct, either.
Six months after the storm, however, hundreds of white volunteers -- mostly students -- poured into the Lower Nine to assist returning residents seeking to rebuild or simply salvage what was left of their homes, businesses, churches and neighborhood.
"I had heard of the Ninth Ward; I was a little afraid to come here," says Robert Barrette, 69, a volunteer chaplain from the Dallas Police Department, as he drove through the storm-shattered area recently. "I certainly didn't expect to meet the beautiful people we met here."
Barrette suddenly stops his van at a street corner. A lone man is cleaning out his destroyed corner shop. Barrette shakes the man's hand and offers him a bottle of drinking water, which he accepts. Still gripping the man's hand, the chaplain politely asks if he can pray with him. The man nods, yes. On a sunny corner of city destruction, they bow their heads onto each other's shoulders. Barrette recites a prayer. They thank each other and part.
For weeks, Barrette says, he has consoled returning Ninth Ward residents that way.
At night, he and other chaplains sleep in a trailer at the emergency command center. "We don't go out here at night," he says. "We're sure there's drug activity." Cars pass the emergency command center with their lights off then park in the dark destruction. Barrette suspects drug deals.
For 25 years, New Orleans has struggled with crime, social ills and police misconduct -- and their deleterious effects on race relations.
Almost overnight, nature's violent visit to New Orleans and the concomitant depopulation of much of the city have given New Orleans a welcome reprieve from most serious crimes, save looting.
Authorities have vowed to rebuild a more effective criminal justice system, one that citizens can trust. The city's altered landscape also has changed many perspectives on race and poverty.
Pre-Katrina, a murder in the inner city was hardly shocking and stirred little outrage. Since the storm, the discovery of another drowning victim in the Ninth Ward makes news in Europe.
A sampling of Gambit Weekly stories and editorials over the last 25 years offers some perspectives on crime and police reform for post-Katrina New Orleans.
In Gambit's premier issue, published Dec. 8, 1980, founding editor Gary Esolen penned the paper's first commentary, "About Crime."
"The city of New Orleans is in a near-panic over crime," Esolen began. "Something has gone wrong. Crimes which people can almost dismiss from their minds when they happen in housing projects or even in the French Quarter are now happening in quiet [U]ptown neighborhoods, and it is terrifying."
Esolen pressed for open discussion on the relationship between crime, race and poverty: "New Orleans is a city of contradictions, and one of the contradictions is that the tolerant city where black and white people live in close proximity and harmony, is also a divided city, with a huge population of frustrated, angry, very poor people who are mostly black."
Esolen was not the first to link poverty and race or to argue that the city's poor neighborhoods were fertile grounds for crime. But he also argued, presciently, that hiring more cops and building more jails would not solve the city's crime problem.
"In the long run, to save this city from terrible trials, we must do something about the problems of poverty and unemployment," he wrote. To do less, would be a "failure of imagination," the city's best interests, and "common sense."
In "Controlling the Police," a May 16, 1981, editorial addressing racial tensions emanating from police brutality against black residents in Algiers, Esolen lamented that then-Mayor Dutch Morial and the City Council had not yet undertaken "significant reform of the police department."
"The impetus for reform must come from outside the community of elected political officials, and outside the police department. It must come in short from the white leadership of this city, and in particular from white business leaders."
Gambit Weekly's last commentary before Katrina ("The Scream," Aug. 23, 2005) intimated that Esolen's warnings more than 24 years earlier had fallen short: "New Orleans, the city we were born to love, lay in a pool of blood -- again -- last week. Raped by hate. Beaten, stabbed, strangled and bludgeoned to death by violence. She screamed for help, over and over, just as she had always done, year after year. We all saw it happen, if not on the evening news then in the daily paper. Yet, we -- her own children -- failed to save her."
The city was on track to become the nation's murder capitol, racing toward 300 murders by the end of 2005. Notably, New Orleans' murder rate was almost 10 times higher than that of New York City and five times higher than that of Cleveland, which suffered a higher poverty rate, said University of New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf.
Gambit Weekly observed shortcomings in the crime fighting efforts of present Mayor Ray Nagin and then-Police Chief Eddie Compass. We took exception to the leaders' repeated assurances that most of the murder victims were drug addicts and criminals: "That may be an explanation, but it's not an excuse."
We also noted the "unsettling" clashes between the pro-police Metropolitan Crime Commission and NOPD's internal affairs division over a string of police disciplinary cases. In addition, civil rights attorney Mary Howell warned of a resurgence in police misconduct that was undercutting local crime-fighting efforts. "You cannot fight crime with a corrupt and brutal police department," Howell said.
Her comments had the icy ring of familiarity. In an earlier commentary, ("Our Worst Nightmare," Dec. 13, 1994), then-U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan offered the following observation after the federal indictment of killer-cop Len Davis and eight other NOPD officers, who were later convicted of felony charges related to their networking relationship with drug dealers: "There is a clear nexus between violent crime and corruption on the police department; if we're going to bring the murder rate down, we're going to have to stop police corruption," Jordan said.
Our last pre-Katrina commentary also observed that safe streets and police reform had been achieved through hard work in the 1990s and could be replicated. In fact, optimism in the face of adversity has long been this newspaper's editorial "bent."
"There is no reason why solutions to the nation's crime epidemic cannot start in New Orleans," we opined at the beginning of Mayor Marc Morial's first administration. ("Dark Clouds, Silver Linings," June 7, 1994.)
Amid the public uproar over crime following the notorious Louisiana Pizza Kitchen murders, we provided a cover-story "primer" to inform the debate on cops, crime and the criminal justice system. ("Twenty Questions," Dec. 17, 1996.)
We supported various pay raise proposals for police and held then-Police Chief Richard Pennington to his promise to cut crime in half -- which he achieved. In addition, dozens of cops went to jail, were fired or resigned while under investigation.
Gambit Weekly also pressed the Morial-Pennington Administration to institutionalize its reforms, which Morial later lamented they had not done. In addition, we called for regular public reports on police accountability, recommending that they be attached to the department's quarterly crime reports. ("Signs of Slippage," March 20, 2001.) The proposal was ignored. During the subsequent Nagin Administration, Chief Eddie Compass told the City Council he would make the recommendation a reality. It was a promise Compass never fulfilled.
We also repeatedly urged Nagin to create the office of an independent monitor to build trust in the NOPD, a recommendation of a task force Morial set up after a police killing in Algiers. Both Morial and Nagin ignored our entreaties. Nagin's second police chief, Superintendent Warren Riley, has embraced the proposal, most recently after the controversial police shooting death of a mental patient armed with a knife. However, the monitor proposal has seen no action by the administration or the City Council. No action is expected, especially not with the April 22 primary just weeks away.
In the first elections since Katrina, crime and police reform are forgotten issues, at least in the early weeks of the campaign. Candidates take great pains to assure the public that they will be tough on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, yet they are silent on crime and police misconduct.
Twenty years ago, Errol Laborde, then associate editor of Gambit, observed in a column that crime was declining, "at least as an issue in the city elections." (Jan. 18, 1986.)
"Crime's greatest damage is not so much from the actual incidents, but from the fear it provokes," Laborde noted.
By the end of 1986, the epidemic of crack cocaine sweeping the country had reached New Orleans. The city was unprepared.
Then and now, drug abuse was not a major priority in the election debates for new leadership at City Hall.
In the wake of Katrina, the landscape for law enforcement is like no other. Pre-Katrina, a common saying among New Orleans cops was, "You can't make this stuff up." Post-Katrina, the maxim may be, "If it's bizarre or surreal, it's probably true."
When Chief Riley took office in November, his top priority for his 1,200 officers was housing. Until very recently, most of the cops lived on cruise ships. NOPD is still headquartered at a hotel on Bourbon Street. In addition, the police brass is trying to overcome an international reputation for poor crisis planning and leadership, widespread desertion, police theft of Cadillacs, and excessive force -- all in the wake of the storm.
A 10-year-old domicile requirement has been temporarily lifted to help police recruiting. But most cops probably couldn't afford the high suburban rents anyway, and more than half of the city's residents still have not come home. The cops are not alone in this strange, new New Orleans.
The district attorney runs his office out of a former nightclub. The coroner (who lived for months in a FEMA trailer) just moved his morgue from Carville to a local warehouse. The Criminal Court building is still closed, and its judges were recently at odds with Criminal Court Clerk Kimberly Williamson Butler, who supervises the court's evidence room. She is out of jail after a three-day stint and, comparing herself to Gandhi, vows to be an advocate for "the incarcerated." Bizarre, surreal -- and all too true.
Meanwhile, WDSU-TV investigative reporter Richard Angelico detailed the destruction of a parish prison by inmates who no doubt were anxious to flee Katrina's rising water -- though a dozen deputies with beanbag guns reportedly kept them from escaping the jail. Angelico's report aired as the sheriff airs campaign commercials to show he didn't abandon the inmates he was elected to guard.
Most of the criminals and drug gangs known to local law enforcement left with the diaspora. (A suspected killer nicknamed "B Stupid" caused a minor sensation when he returned to town.)
The FBI and DEA fear the influx of Hispanic laborers will be followed by violent, well-organized Latin gangs -- about whom local cops reportedly have little or no "intel." Hispanics, if the past concerns of blacks are precedent, may fear "racial profiling" by law enforcement.
In short, Katrina seems to have turned the city as we knew it inside out.
The good news is that the Crime Commission is praising the work of new internal affairs Deputy Chief Marlon Defillo, who conducts random integrity checks in an attempt to keep the force honest. Meanwhile, the city certainly seems safer than it did before Aug. 29 -- at least, for now. At press time, NOPD still had not resumed publication of quarterly crime statistics, citing storm destruction to its computer system.
Gambit Weekly has questioned the veracity of police crime statistics for 10 years now. Mayors Morial and Nagin and police chiefs Pennington and Compass ignored long-standing recommendations by the Office of Municipal Investigation, among others, for regular independent audits of the police figures.
While often critical of NOPD as an organization, this paper has a history of saluting its heroes and noting the effectiveness of individual officers, units, programs and policies. "While NOPD led the nation in police brutality complaints, the SWAT team (formed in 1979) resolved more than 99 percent of its 342 calls without using deadly force." ("Silver Lining in a Blue Cloud," July 26, 1994.) In fact, the SWAT team won the respect of civil rights lawyers and housing project residents.
"Our job is to get everybody out alive, including the suspect," said Maj. Howard Robertson, then-commander of the SWAT team.
That may be a worthy goal for all of post-Katrina NOPD -- for another 25 years.