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SUNO's New Focus 

There is encouraging news as we near the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina -- and the end of the summer of our discontent. Historically black Southern University of New Orleans is stepping up to help lead the struggle against crime and the underlying social ills stifling the city's recovery. Those ills include housing shortages, illiteracy, and race and class divisions. "We have the wherewithal to help the community on issues as such as these," says SUNO Chancellor Victor Ukpolo, an economist and native of Nigeria. "We are no longer ready to take the back seat; we are going to be front and center in being part of the solution."

SUNO's open-ended commitment includes resources and expert advice from both its criminal justice program and its school of social work, university officials say. For starters, SUNO will play a major role in shaping the agenda of the city's first post-Katrina crime summit on Sept. 16. Ukpolo says he offered SUNO's assistance after city leaders issued a televised appeal for community help after the June 17 massacre of five youths in a drug-infested neighborhood.

City officials enthusiastically welcomed the academics to the recovery battle. Located across Leon C. Simon Drive from the New Orleans FBI headquarters, SUNO is one of eight colleges and universities in Orleans Parish. SUNO's new focus is consistent with the chancellor's goal of raising the university's stature to new heights: "It is my intent to get SUNO to that point where SUNO is THE university that addresses major issues in the community -- crime, economic deprivation, housing -- those issues that are really at the core of the underprivileged."

Ukpolo's quest to raise SUNO's profile could not come at a more opportune time for New Orleans. Crime is threatening to strangle the city's fragile recovery. The murder rate is stubbornly persistent, despite the welcome presence of 300 National Guard troops, whose stay has been extended indefinitely in the wake of a recent quadruple homicide.

Mayor Nagin and other officials last week announced a series of first steps toward rebuilding the storm-weakened criminal justice system and moving a 6,000-case backlog. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu has called for reinforcements for the local FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. And Police Chief Warren Riley -- who earned a master's degree in criminal justice from SUNO -- has done a yeoman's job of running an understaffed, big-city police department out of a cluster of FEMA trailers.

The dynamics of Katrina's diaspora have brought a rising tide of drugs and drug-related violence, according to an Aug. 5 report by The New York Times. "The drug trade in New Orleans is flourishing again, after its dealers, who evacuated to the regional drug hub of Houston, forged closer ties to major suppliers from the Mexican and Colombian cartels," the Times reported. "They have since brought back drugs to New Orleans in far larger shipments than before [Katrina]... essentially creating violent distribution gangs now spread over a much bigger area. As a result, law enforcement officials in New Orleans and Houston are struggling to keep up with the changes as the region's drug trade merges to a greater extent than ever before, adding to the murder rates in both cities."

Crime, drugs, violence and incarceration rates disproportionately impact the poor and African-Americans, and therefore any successes associated with SUNO's new focus should benefit the entire city. Too often, crime summits are top-heavy with grandstanding politicians and turf-conscious law enforcement officials. The City Council's last crime summit (before Katrina) was a long-winded, racially polarizing affair that resulted in more hard feelings than new ideas.

We hope the approach to the upcoming summit as outlined by SUNO and District C City Councilman James Carter will bring the kind of "community buy-in" that the Mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission failed to achieve. The summit initially will focus on "best practices" employed by criminal justice systems nationwide, with an eye toward local implementation, SUNO officials say. The second half of the summit will address subjects such as economics and crime; race, class and crime; and the role of the family and the community in crime prevention, says SUNO spokesperson Harold Clark. Chancellor Ukpolo and criminologist John Penny will be among the presenters.

Lee P. Brown, who spent 40 years as a cop before becoming a national drug czar under President Clinton -- and the first African-American mayor of Houston -- will keynote the event. Cosponsored by the mayor, the City Council, NOPD and the New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation, the summit will emphasize civic duty and self-responsibility, says Councilman Carter, chair of the council's committee on crime. "We want to deal with folks taking responsibility for their actions."

SUNO and the council will share responsibility for the summit, which, unlike others, will not be a one-shot event. SUNO officials and council members will follow up with quarterly roundtables to the chart the progress of summit recommendations. The second crime summit is already scheduled for Dec. 8. "What works?" Ukpolo asks in anticipation of the second summit. "If not, why not?"

Indeed, what does work? We would like to see the best minds from all our city's colleges and universities answer the same question -- perhaps at a new consortium. SUNO is already at the forefront, but there's plenty of room for more leadership.

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