Wednesday, March 03, 2010

There's decay and deterioration all around...But there are people here who are trying to do good things. Decay and deterioration are just the way of the world now, and we have to make the best of it.*
The signs at the Abbey on Decatur said much more than the scions of the city would have ever wanted visitors to town to know about New Orleans. It was out there for all to see: the signs compared the murder rates of New Orleans and Boston, which, 'round 1996, had similar population numbers. The number of killings, however, weighed much more heavily on the New Orleans sign - in the previous year, the total was four times what Boston's was.

Sure, this city initially freaked me out more than living in Rudy Giuliani's cleaned-up New York City did. Yes, some friends of my grandparents had had their luggage stolen out of the trunk of their car when they had come down to visit their son. I'd only had my license plate on my first car for a week when it was stolen, forcing me to wait another day at the DMV to get another. My roommate's parents had been followed home from the airport, had had guns put to their heads, and had been forced to open the doors to their house so that the gunmen could rob them of their valuables. My second car was stolen off my block after a month. My landlady accompanied me to our district station when I went to file a report and told me about when her truck was stolen: she immediately got a tenant of hers to drive her straight into the projects where she was lucky enough to find her truck sitting up on blocks, its tires having been removed. It was a bit late for me to do that, though, she said. Yes, I was also living here in the middle of a spree of shootings of taxicab drivers, which seemed just awful to me, as every one that I'd met had been a native who was just trying to make a living.

However, trying to involve the New Orleans police in this stuff could also be hazardous...

I looked up from a book I'd been reading one night to see the shadows of flashing red and blue lights on the wall of my living room - a few guys who'd been on a robbery spree of uptown restaurants had been caught on my corner, and I observed the police bringing people over to identify the suspects right there on the street. I couldn't help but wonder how well that sort of identification was going to hold up in court, or even if the people who made the ID then and there would be willing to walk through the doors at Tulane and Broad, much less sit in a courtroom and point the finger at these guys who could turn around and exact their revenge. I read an article in the paper that turned a supposedly locally-held tenet of law enforcement at Mardi Gras time - "Mardi Gras is actually the safest time to be in New Orleans because of all the police around trying to make it safe," was what I was told - on its head for a few tourists who went to some local cops and tried to report some wrongdoing to the people they thought would help them most and ended up being hauled into OPP themselves because they became indignant at the insensitivity of the officers to their news of a crime in progress. The stories of NOPD negligence, cruelty, bigotry, and even some outright criminal acts in their ranks loom very large in this town.
Boston had once seemed the perfect antidote for New Orleans nuttiness, although now I felt that there must be someplace in between, some middle ground between the Puritan ethic of Boston and the unrelenting revelry of New Orleans....

"Halfway between Boston and New Orleans?" asked Dalt. "That's Cleveland...You can't have it both ways...Boston and New Orleans would neutralize each other. You have to have the extremes."*
Although I'd had some direct and indirect encounters with crime in the first few years after I'd moved here, things seemed to be looking up. A new police chief, hired a few years after I'd moved down here, was cleaning up the NOPD. Things weren't perfect on the law enforcement front, but they seemed to be getting better. The city as a whole seemed to be trying to nip some of its corruption in the bud, perhaps inspired a little by the indictment and eventual conviction of former governor Edwin Edwards and the ongoing investigations into corruption in the workings of the Orleans Parish School District...a city charter change touted by then-mayor Marc Morial that would have enabled New Orleans mayors to serve for three possible terms instead of two was voted down. HANO was taken over by the feds, who would, presumably, run it better (yeah, this was before all the investigations into HUD's workings revealed the feds to be just as bad as the HANO higher-ups). The economy around the country was good, and it was driven home in the amounts of money visitors to New Orleans were dropping year 'round through the conventions booked every weekend as well as at peak times like JazzFest and Carnival.

Maybe it happened when Pennington, seen as a Morial crony despite his much-needed reformation of the NOPD, was passed over for the mayor's seat and Nagin took that office. Maybe it was having possibly the worst president ever in this country's history sneaking his way into the White House with the help of the state of Florida's damned chads. Maybe 9/11 helped, and then 8/29/05 - despite handing the city what seemed, at first glance, like a small reprieve for a few months due to their being almost no people here - drove the final nails in the coffin.

Whatever it was, here we are again.

The Danziger Bridge case has exposed so much that is still seriously wrong about this place that I love, and the problems can't currently be easily quantified - if it were as simple as lowering the asshole quotient within the NOPD, that would be great. The fissures that have opened up as a result of retired lieutenant Lohman's revelations run much deeper than that, though - an entity that is supposed to be of service to the community has hurt the community quite badly and made us wonder once again: where is the change for the better? The compassion? The valuing of the truth over loyalty and/or some form of omerta?

All of those things apparently left town when Pennington tried to become the mayor of New Orleans.
People who are bailing out of New Orleans are looking for a typical American situation. But that typical American situation may not be happening anywhere.*
Lord knows we desperately need a reformed police force. Nobody wants the crime that we've got right now, but nobody wants the National Guard back here for fear of the message that might send to the rest of the country and, indeed, the world. It's going to be tough cleaning house again, that's for certain...but we need to do it, and this time, we need for it to stick.

I've mentioned it before, and I'll mention it again: our newly elected mayor does have a transition site up asking for ideas of stuff for him to get working on once he heads over to Perdido Street in an official capacity. Bombard him with suggestions on how he can help make this right. There are many concerns that Mitch Landrieu, once he's in City Hall, will be working harder to preserve the powers the mayor's office has that were abused so by Hizzoner the Walking Id and his staff - diligent work on reforming the NOPD would be one good indicator that he means to do more than rest on a family name.

Use NolaStat in putting all of these stories about the performance of the NOPD's officers into some quantifiable perspective. It can give us citizens a better picture of what needs to be done to effect change. Putting cameras in squad cars would also give us a picture of how officers behave during traffic stops and other sorts of incidents. These present opportunities for much-needed improvement and not necessarily for head-rolling.

Get the officers out of their squad cars and their district stations and out into the community more. Hire a police chief that will help make this a priority.

All of what I've put down here is just a beginning - one that, yes, we'll have to do over.

And, hey, if things do get rough in the indictments area, well, a supposedly "typical American situation" can elude even the cities with the slightest veneer of such typicality. To all you doe-eyed Dorothy Gales out there: we Americans have never been in Kansas, but the rest of the country only just now seems to be waking up to that fact.

Update, 6:55 PM: I was wondering when the IG's two cents would enter into the Danziger revelations. Quatrevaux wants the Walking Id to get his police chief to behave:
The Superintendent has repeatedly refused to comply with the law. The Superintendent said he is shocked by the misconduct of some of his officers, but ordered the very officers charged with investigating complaints of misconduct to ignore the law as it applies to the NOPD.

These actions prevent the Office of the Independent Police Monitor from performing its duties under the law. I urge you to instruct the Superintendent to cooperate with the Police Monitor and obey the law.
Good luck trying to get Nagin to lift a finger on getting Riley to go beyond being shocked... shocked!... at Lohman's cover-up.

*From Carol Flake's New Orleans: Behind the Masks of America's Most Exotic City, the first book about this town I happened to pick up and devour when I first moved here.

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