It is a nightmare from which we cannot awake. Cold statistics underscore the stark reality: The number of homicides in our city last week topped 200 for the fifth year in a row. At the current pace, we will exceed 300 murders by the end of this year, according to Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the University of New Orleans. If we had New York City's crime rate, New Orleans would finish the year with only 36 murders, Scharf says. If New Orleans had the same homicide rate as Cleveland, whose poverty rate is far higher than ours, our city would finish this year with 62 murders, he adds. Other cities are experiencing double-digit declines in their homicide rates -- as high as 30 percent. By contrast, our murder rate has been rising steadily since hitting a recent low of 162 in 1999.
Our national reputation was recently underscored in an Aug. 5 editorial in the Los Angeles Times, titled "The Cancer in Compton." Wrote the Times: "With 42 homicides so far in 2005, Compton is on a pace to displace New Orleans as the nation's murder capital." This is not how we want other cities to be talking about us. Vigorous self-promotion campaigns cannot obscure the statistics.
Why are we slipping? Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Eddie Compass have offered various explanations as their own best crime-fighting efforts (improved police pay, security cameras in high-crime areas, and domestic violence training for cops) fail to stem the tide of bloodshed. For example, the mayor and the chief have tried to assure us that many of our murder victims are drug addicts and criminals. That may be a factual explanation, but it is not an excuse.
Other explanations for our homicides deserve consideration. Veteran civil rights attorney Mary Howell argues that there is a resurgence in police misconduct that is undercutting NOPD's crime fighting efforts. "You cannot fight crime with a corrupt and brutal police department," Howell says. "There is a correlation between crime and integrity, discipline and accountability in a police department."
We agree. We find it unsettling that the private Metropolitan Crime Commission, a staunch supporter of law enforcement, has clashed repeatedly with Compass and NOPD's Police Integrity Bureau over a recent string of police disciplinary cases. Among those cases were allegations of misconduct involving three valedictorians from Jefferson Parish high schools, including one who was allegedly roughed up by NOPD officers. PIB concluded there was no evidence to support the students' claims, despite the Crime Commission's objections. Moreover, Deputy Chief Warren Riley's recent shake-up of top police commanders, following a spate of homicides, appears to have done more to increase internal friction and public uncertainty than to reduce violence.
The police reforms that followed the 1990s crime wave showed New Orleans what it's like to live without constant fear. We loved it. We want to do it again. We know the effort requires constant vigilance and effort. Our city also requires a strong mayor and a strong police chief to keep crime under control. Former Mayor Marc Morial and Police Chief Richard Pennington learned how to lead the fight against crime -- after the public marched on City Hall. Nagin might need only a change of style. The people of New Orleans want to be led, not managed. The mayor cannot delegate responsibility for crime and police reform to a department head, especially not during a crisis. We need a goal. Pennington once promised to cut the murder rate in half. With the public's help, he did it. Nagin's administration should aim equally high.
We also suggest that NOPD should bring the city's many community service providers into its weekly COMSTAT crime strategy meetings. They have ideas that are worth hearing. Mental health professionals, public housing advocates, life-saving medical providers -- anyone who has positive contact with the criminal element --Êshould be sought out. The goal is not to "snitch" but to save lives.
Finally, we need an overarching public education project that reaches into the neighborhoods most affected by the increased violence. This goes beyond reforms in public schools. For example, the city's Web site should include "best practice" links on how our children can protect themselves from bullies, and how the public can avoid armed robbery, rape, murder and crime-related addictions. Most importantly, each of us needs to learn that we have a crucial part to play in helping our beloved New Orleans when we hear the cries for help. Those cries are our own. Any one of us could be next.