If the U.S. Department of Justice's March 17 report on the New Orleans Police Department's constitutional abuses and chronic shortcomings was the equivalent of a doctor's diagnosis, two reports released last week by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) were the prescription. Unfortunately, last week's reports drew considerably less attention than the earlier DOJ report. All three are "must reads" for anyone concerned about the future of policing in New Orleans.
In one of last week's reports, "An Assessment of the New Orleans Police Department Homicide Section: Recommendations for Best Practices," the bureau recommended a wholesale reorganization of NOPD's Homicide Division. The suggestions included beefing up the division (from 22 investigators to 32), providing better training, and giving officers more tools (such as smartphones) to do their jobs in the field.
The report noted that parts of the Homicide Division's operations manual had not been updated since 1995 — and there was only one copy of the manual for the entire department. Perhaps worst of all was this observation: "While there is more work that is needed to fully develop the Scientific Investigation Division, they do have a functional forensic analysis capability. Ironically, NOPD Investigators are not fully aware of the division's analytic capability. Some investigators stated that the department did not have a functional crime laboratory. This obviously indicates a communication problem."
The second report, "Crime in New Orleans: Analyzing Crime Trends and New Orleans' Responses to Crime," compared local crime rates with those of the U.S. as a whole, with similarly sized cities and with one particular city — Orlando, Fla. The BJA chose Orlando for comparison because of its similar size, region and tourism industry. In 2009, New Orleans' overall crime, violent crime and property crime rates were slightly lower than those of similarly sized cities and substantially lower than those of Orlando. However, New Orleans' homicide rate that same year was more than 10 times the national average, more than four times the rate of cities of a similar size and more than four times the rate of Orlando. By any measure, our homicide rate is anomalous — and rightly a source of local as well as national concern.
The BJA analyzed criminals and victims in homicide cases from mid-April 2009 through mid-May 2010. The findings were sobering if not surprising. Exactly 90 percent of the 200 homicides studied during that 13-month period were committed with firearms — 78 percent with handguns. Of those killed, 86.5 percent were male and 91.5 percent were black — but only 1 percent had any formal gang affiliation. Additionally, only 13.7 percent were killed by a stranger, while more than 40 percent were killed by an "acquaintance."
The second report also noted the "diverse" nature of homicide cases in New Orleans — as well as the challenges confronting police investigators. In cities where drug sales drive the homicide rate, cops can reduce homicides by targeting the organized narcotics trade. In New Orleans, the problem isn't just drug dealers or gangbangers; it also seems to be common street beefs that get settled at gunpoint.
The studies recognize that Police Chief Ronal Serpas has already instituted a 65-point plan to rebuild NOPD and that his efforts are showing progress. Serpas' plan includes specific steps to reduce violent crime, steps which the bureau called "strategies and practices that have proven effective in other cities." The report noted, however, that more needs to be done. The bureau suggested several additional measures: establishing a homicide review team; improving crime analysis and intelligence operations; and devoting greater attention and resources to community collaboration. The report also calls for continued improvements to the Comstat system, which uses computers to analyze, predict and curtail criminal activity in the police districts.
Clearly, NOPD needs a top-to-bottom overhaul. Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Chief Serpas have promised nothing less. Collectively, the federal reports present a thorough, honest, independent analysis of what's working, what's broken and what must be done to fix the department. The good news, as the homicide analysis noted, is that "most problems do not appear to be endemic — rather, they are resolvable, albeit some are easier than others." In the long run, the cure for what ails NOPD is bound to revive all of New Orleans.