April 2 (Bloomberg) -- New Orleans is on a roll, rebounding from the devastation of the 2005 hurricane and the post-Katrina ineptitude in Washington and in the city’s government.
Mitch Landrieu, an energetic, talented and honest mayor, was elected two years ago with support of both blacks and whites in this racially polarized city.
He has imposed fiscal sanity, brought transparency and curbed corruption. The once-disgraceful school system has promise to become a reformer’s model, with 78 percent of the kids in charter schools. The economy is getting better. A $2 billion biomedical research venue, anchored by two health centers, a new veterans’ facility and a city hospital to replace the one wasted by the hurricane have been started. A record $5.47 billion was spent by tourists last year.
New Orleans is hosting two marquee sports events: college basketball’s Final Four this weekend and the National Football League’s Super Bowl in February. Both bring in lots of dollars and publicity.
“This city has not only turned the corner,” Landrieu said in an interview last week, “we’re roaring back in an amazing turnaround. We’re not just moving back to the city we were, we’re moving to the city we want to be.”
Along with this brightness, the Big Easy continues to have a dark side: The city remains the U.S. murder capital. At least one person, usually a young black male, is killed more than every other day.
The mayor acknowledges this: “The murder rate remains a huge problem. Our number one priority is creating a safe community.”
There is no simple explanation for this blight. Among big cities, New Orleans is 79th in per-capita violent crime; yet it leads the nation in murders per capita. And this isn’t just an after-effect of Katrina; it has been the case for more than three decades.
Amid a myriad of probable causes and theories, a major focus is the 1,353-person police department, long a cesspool of corruption and violence. There is a concerted effort to reform the force. Yet it is a slow process. The city is negotiating with the U.S. Justice Department over a consent decree to curb police abuses.
In New Orleans, murders follow a distressingly similar pattern. Almost 90 percent of the victims are young black males; more than 90 percent of the perpetrators fit the same profile.
The vast majority of assailants have a criminal record and 40 percent have a prior arrest for illegal firearms possession. In about four of five cases, perpetrators and victims knew each other.
“A lot of this is young people with no conflict-resolution skills,” says Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, who was tapped by the mayor two years ago.
Easy access to firearms is one cause. The city will begin a gun-buyback plan that had a modicum of success in Baltimore and elsewhere. The mayor and police chief are urging municipal judges to increase the bonds and require ankle bracelets for those charged repeatedly with illegal firearms possession; statistics show such offenders are most likely to commit murders. Success has been limited.
Landrieu stresses the need for a holistic approach, involving businesses, the faith community, nonprofits, as well as government. A major initiative, started six months ago, is SOS, or Saving Our Sons. Its activities include mentoring at-risk young black males, conflict-resolution programs and midnight basketball, with the participation of the New Orleans Hornets, the city’s professional team.
Still, a core element is improving police-community relations for a department that has become notorious for political interference, corruption, racial insensitivity and civil-service rigidities.
There are changes afoot: New police recruits will now need to have completed 60 hours of college credits or two years in the military. Superintendent Serpas has won the right to select 16 officers for new leadership posts, an important step in reshaping the force.
Landrieu says more must be done. “We need to change civil service for police,” he says. “The system doesn’t allow us to get rid of bad cops.”
One reason for the civil-service status was to protect political patronage, at times rampant; this is no longer the case. “Mitch has kept politics totally out of this department,” Serpas says.
Only last week, an NOPD officer, Jason Giroir, already connected with two controversial and violent episodes involving black citizens, weighed-in online -- identifying himself as a New Orleans cop -- on Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black youth killed recently in Florida while walking home from a convenience store. “Act like a Thug, die like one,” he wrote. He was suspended and later, facing a rough inquiry, resigned. The city wasn’t able to fire him.
That episode enraged -- understandably, if somewhat irrationally -- elements in the black community. “NOPD is an organized-crime syndicate,” said Walter Umari, a Nation of Islam community activist.
There are other impediments beyond the city leadership’s control. The state is cutting its mental-health programs, including 39 behavioral-health beds in New Orleans. In a letter to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, the mayor wrote that the cuts would be “devastating as we fight an epidemic of violence.”
The police superintendant says it usually takes five to seven years to reform a department; in New Orleans, he says it’ll be more like seven to 10.
That would mean the end of this decade. Whether this happens may be determined by the hard-charging mayor. He’s likely to be re-elected in two years. A year later he’ll have to decide whether he stays or, as maybe the only Democrat who could win a statewide race, runs for governor.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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Today’s highlights: The View editors on why the U.S. should ratify the nuclear-test ban and regulate money-market funds. William D. Cohan on the government hiding public information on banks. Albert R. Hunt on murder in New Orleans. Charles Dumas on why the euro should be abandoned, and Charles Wyplosz on why the euro should be kept.
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