Despite the best efforts of local and federal officials, these are not the best of times for crime fighting efforts in New Orleans. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Police Chief Ronal Serpas, Sheriff Marlin Gusman, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, Police Monitor Susan Hutson and others in the fight gathered at City Hall on Jan. 5 to show their shared resolve to lower the city's violent crime rate this year. They also acknowledged that the numbers for 2010 showed the city's violent crime rate holding steady. In 2009, New Orleans had 174 murders; last year, we had 175.
To jump-start crime fighting in 2011, Serpas announced several initiatives: new crime-tracking software, a bilingual outreach program called "El Protector," and a plan to get DNA processed for hundreds of backlogged sexual assault kits currently in evidence. The cornerstone of Serpas' strategy is a program called "Mission One," an adaptation of a similar program Serpas launched in 2004 while he was police chief in Nashville, Tenn.
Mission One will require officers not assigned to a police district (read: desk jobs) to work one shift a month responding to calls from citizens or supervising fellow officers who do so. The assignment applies to all cops except those engaged in undercover work — all the way up to the chief himself. Four of the New Orleans Police Department's eight districts will receive additional Mission One help every weekend. The 8th District (which encompasses the French Quarter, the CBD and the Marigny triangle) will get reinforcements each week, while the three other districts will be chosen by Deputy Chief Marlon Defillo based on need and recent crime statistics. Mission One begins this weekend (Jan. 14) and, according to Serpas, "will continue indefinitely, and will only be suspended for major events" such as Mardi Gras.
Serpas, who loves statistics, has cited Nashville Police Department numbers showing a steady decrease in crime in that city since he initiated Mission One there in 2004. Critics, including Nashville mayor Karl Dean, noted that FBI Unified Crime Report stats differed from those cited by Serpas. Dean ordered an audit of the department's numbers last year. Serpas notes that the state of Tennessee and the FBI use different reporting systems, and he told Gambit last year that he stands by his numbers and the Mission One program. "I thought it was very, very successful," he said. Locally, there should be no dispute over one key crime statistic: homicides. That's because cops don't classify deaths — the coroner's office does. That's one reason why citizens and the media continue to measure the violent crime rate by the murder count.
Mission One is the latest in a series of bold moves made by Serpas since he assumed the top-cop job here last June. Anyone who has driven around New Orleans at night during the last few months has undoubtedly noticed an increase in the number of flashing blue lights. Patrol car visibility is substantially higher since Serpas arrived — and so is the number of motorist pullovers, another source of controversy in Nashville during Serpas' tenure there. While many complain about frequent traffic stops, Serpas says they are an integral part of effective police work and that they increase public safety on several levels.
Mission One makes great sense from a PR standpoint, but we won't know if it's an effective crime-fighting tool unless it reduces crime significantly — by whatever metric one uses to measure crime. At the Jan. 5 press conference, Landrieu promised that law enforcement would be "all over violent crime this year like gravy on rice." Citizens should hold the mayor, Serpas, Cannizzaro and the others to that promise. Tripling the numbers of officers in the Violent Offender Warrant Service is a great start; giving cops the discretion to write tickets instead of arresting offenders for minor crimes is also a good idea.
If Serpas' crime-fighting techniques bear fruit and other components of the criminal justice system do their part, there's ample reason to hope for better news about the local crime rate this time next year.
CORRECTION: In last week's Commentary ("Be It Resolved ... ," Jan. 4), Gambit mistakenly referred to the University of New Orleans as a private university. UNO is a public university. We regret the error.