The citizens’ march against crime was the largest and most diverse demonstration of community solidarity in New Orleans history. Every neighborhood, every race, every age, every class, streamed out of their homes, schools, and businesses, joining into a Cat 5000 régiment of discontent. The unified cry of anguish: our public officials have failed us, miserably! The individual messages varied: “Silence is Violence”; “Enough!”; “Out of Iraq into New Orleans”; “Thou Shalt Not Kill”; “Where’s Ray?” The expression of anguish after the murders of Dinneral Shavers and Helen Hill was more than just the grief felt at their deaths, it was a popular rage against all of the injustices that have been perpetrated on New Orleans citizens over the last year and a half by elected officials at all levels of government. The focus of that rage was New Orleans government (but it was more than just ironic that a similar protest was staged in Washington against the unpopular king installed there, now calling for more American citizens to die in Iraq for a cause he can’t explain or justify). Tired of the routine of public officials going behind closed doors to emerge with platitudes in front of a photo shoot, citizens seized the podium at the seat of New Orleans government, and held their own press conference. They tore down the statue of the king, beheaded the government nobility, and renamed the square, “Place de la Révolution.” Yes, it was a Bastille moment.
I was speculating before the march that it wouldn’t have surprised me to see effigies of Mayor Ray Nagin and NOPD Superintendent Warren Riley burned in front of City Hall, or worse, a real Bastille moment. It didn’t happen — not physically anyway — but what was unmistakable beneath the rage voiced by citizen soldats like Karen Gadbois and Bart Everson was, “this is your last chance to deal with rational people.”
I marched with a contingent of Uptown residents to the foot of Canal Street. The World Trade Center crowd numbered somewhere between 500 and 1000 there. I first sensed that the crowd was growing considerably larger as the train of marchers proceeded through downtown and turned corners. I couldn’t see far in front of me, or behind, but each time the procession turned a corner, it took much longer, and I could see more people and signs. I don’t know where they were coming from. Streaming in from other neighborhoods I imagine, or descending out of office buildings. People who had to work that day nevertheless appeared on sidewalks in front of their offices, or waved gestures of support through office windows. By the time the Central City group arrived at City Hall, an events planner, Lee Arnold, suggested that there might even have been as many as 7500 people. Only the annual Mardi Gras parades summon greater numbers of a diverse spectrum of the New Orleans population.
Before I offer more analysis of the march against crime, I’d first like to critique the broadcast press coverage I’ve seen and heard. I couldn’t hear the speakers because I was out on the street holding a sign for Etienne. Later, I heard the speeches broadcast in their entirety on 1350 AM. It pains me to do so, but I have to commend Entercom management for making that choice. For once, they used the airwaves to broadcast the raw, unfiltered voice of the community. In so doing, they proved what I’ve been saying all along, that using the voices of the community rather than partisan talk hosts can produce truly good radio. On the other hand, I heard Garland Robinette minimizing the turnout to a mere 1000, repeatedly belittling the impact of the group based upon his own faulty and exaggerated perceptions. I also still have to criticize Entercom for sitting on three licenses to broadcast the same content. How about turning over one of those licenses to the community so we can hear more of the unfiltered voices of the community? In fact, later in the evening yesterday, 1350 went to dead air, which suggests that: 1) Entercom was broadcasting 1350 AM unattended, because there was no one in the studio to address the problem, and no one monitoring the broadcast, and 2) the fact that there was dead air suggests that there was a block of time when the community could have been using that frequency. Shane Warner couldn’t get a conversation going on WIST 690 AM when I tuned in because callers kept trying at his ridiculous game of guessing why Tabasco bottles have a green label on the neck. Is that a good use of the airwaves? Of course, all of the other commercial stations played the same old mix of ad nauseum song repetition, pop news commentary, and lewd talk. Finally, this morning, I heard some pretty stupifyingly uninformed WWL hosts suggesting that the march was spurred by the Saints’ post-Katrina winning record, totally missing the point about neighborhood activism and the extent of citizen frustration with public officials.
The local Fox 8 affiliate had the best coverage of the march among television news programs, offering more unedited clips and analysis than the other news programs. Of course, they devote a full hour to local news, which I always thought was a demonstration of their commitment to covering local issues (all of the other stations have stuck to the same old half-hour format at a time when we need so much more information than ever before). WWL TV (the Belo affiliate battling Cox cable to keep them from dropping the 24/7 WWL re-runs on channel 15) offered little more than a crowd count, sound bites, and reaction from Nagin and other public officials, but that was at least better than WDSU’s coverage — they didn’t “get it” at all. I haven’t seen ABC 26 coverage.
I’ll say it once again. We citizens know more about what’s happening in New Orleans right now. In our diversity of experiences and knowledge, we know far more than any one individual could know about all of the things changing so quickly on a daily basis. The community should be given a forum for sharing information and ideas about how to rebuild this city. Radio is the best forum for doing that. Once the license and transmitter are had, the day-to-day operations are pretty simple. All community members have to do is host conversations on-air, just as they would do sitting at a table over coffee. That’s why corporate media behemoths Clear Channel and Entercom like radio so much. They can hoard their licenses, offering nothing but mindless programming, and suck in the revenues from advertisers. It’s a form of rent-seeking, lobbying government for more and more exclusive access for a public resource, and then draining all of the life out of it. This town needs a sponsor to help build a truly community-run radio station. Maybe we’d create something called “Google radio,” or “Yahoo radio,” or “Apple radio” — as long as the community owns the license so they control the programming, and therefore, can never lose their control over content. It’s a change that should be modeled here, in New Orleans, where the stakes for the community are so high, but it could be duplicated around the country. To critics who say a community radio station wouldn’t be viable, I respond that every contractor, building supplies outlet, and real estate broker in town would want to advertise on the station that is the true voice of the community. It wouldn’t have to be commercial, but that’s one option that could be explored.
Citizens of New Orleans have suffered for far too long the failure of “authority” figures telling us what we need to do without doing what they’re supposed to do. That was one of the essential messages of the citizens’ march against crime. From the very first days following Hurricane Katrina, through the long wait to get relief supplies, through the long wait to return to the city, through the long delay to have city services restored, through the long delay to get building permits, through the long delay to inspect contractor work, through the long delay to settle insurance claims, through the long delay to remove debris from the streets, through the long delay for the rebuilding plans to emerge, through the long delay to get compensation for damages so homeowners could get back into their houses, through the grieving for crime victims, and on and on and on — citizens did what they were supposed to do — over and over again — filled out the forms, stood in lines, waited on the telephone to repeat a story again to the next person who’s supposed to know what’s going on, gone to endless meetings week after week, and done what they could to participate as a community with the police department to squelch the crime problem. And nothing! It hasn’t amounted to squat, because every level of government is a complete and utter failure. There has been a complete failure to even acknowledge that government is failing us. Instead, we’re served phony media events.
Briefly, as a little aside, I’d like to recall a particular phony media event as an interesting display of public theatre: Spud McConnell talking to Governor Blanco a couple of days ago about a Saints celebration that she was promoting. It was spectacularly bizarre, because Blanco seemed to be hoping that by associating herself with the Saints’ success, perhaps people might overlook the failure of the Road Home program which has yielded just 163 checks out of 97,167 applications to help homeowners rebuild their homes, but obnoxious Spud McConnell, who can barely say her name on-air without hacking, didn’t ask a single substantive question. It’s amazing how the message can be controlled, and WWL isn’t immune from political persuasion. In fact, WWL is probably most aligned with the status quo. Notwithstanding their grandstanding as being outspoken, being outspoken without being informed gives WWL hosts an incredible blindspot.
We citizens are demanding an authentic response to our needs. We have a right to expect that our public officials be experts in their professions. They keep telling us that we have to be more patient because a slow recovery is normal, or worse, insult us, as Karen Gadbois complained, by saying we haven’t been active enough in helping the government do its job. Ray Nagin and Warren Riley may not know what to do about the crime problem in New Orleans. If that’s the case, they should admit that they don’t know. They should admit that it’s a difficult problem, and engage us in an honest dialog. Thus far, however, they haven’t been willing to admit their failures, instead hiding behind statistically “normal” murder rates, and offering more photo ops of criminal justice officials standing in front of the cameras in a false display of unity. In this incredible void of leadership, it’s now time for the community to take charge, and for us to tell public officials what to do.
The citizen activism movement ever since Hurricane Katrina may offer a model to solve the governing crisis — at least locally. What finally broke yesterday was the perception that government officials will do the jobs they’re supposed to do. It’s time to stop waiting. We need to establish institutions that don’t just respond to the demands of City Hall — like neighborhood planning organizations have been doing. We need to demand that City Hall answer to our needs. We need to be the change we want to see in our world. That will require forced accountability, and the only way to do that is to establish our own governing institutions that require accountability. I’m talking about a shadow government — a concept that’s been evolving through conversations with some key community-organizing facilitators like Alan Gutierrez. One of the first institutions that ought to be considered is a citizens’ crime board to monitor and improve the police department’s responsiveness to community needs. This is one of a number of suggestions offered below.
Ray Nagin and Warren Riley have been scrambling this week to calm the brewing tempest. It hasn’t worked, because they’ve only offered meaningless gestures and appearances. Consider the police checkpoints idea, offered as a substitute to curfews. I saw a traffic ticket issued on Wednesday which was completely illegible. It looked like insufficient pressure was applied to transfer the officer’s writing through the carbon. The person who was issued the ticket didn’t know what the violation was. Now, I think I would have asked, but this is just one small example of how the spirit of an idea can disintegrate into meaningless implementation. The real reason to have checkpoints ought to be to catch wanted criminals, not harass drivers. The police should be using their time more wisely. Moreover, it’s easy to simply drive around checkpoints. I’m really not sure if the police are setting up actual checkpoints. They may simply be making more traffic stops. That’s a much better policy, but once again, I’m not so sure this is a particularly good time to be offending otherwise good citizens at a time when public confidence in the police department is so low. I do support traffic stops, but I’m not sure I agree that the police should be ticketing people if they weren’t doing anything harming safety. They should be spending their time catching wanted criminals.
I’ve been too busy in the last few days to offer my own recommendations for solutions to the crime problems. Some of these resemble the recommendations made by the Silence is Violence group, and those made by Bart Everson in his speech at the rally. Some will be considered controversial. We need to revolutionize the criminal justice system, so I’m offering what I truly believe will make a difference:
- Develop plans to support more community policing. Establish more of a community presence with bike and foot patrols, and more substations throughout the city. Police officers should become familiar with the surroundings and the residents whom they serve, and should engage with community leaders and centers of faith to identify and participate in the process of creating safe neighborhoods. When the police are more accountable to their communities, real trust, and real solutions, start to emerge. A mechanism to be considered which would enforce accountability is a citizens’ crime board. The model would have to be discussed — there might be one crime board for each neighborhood organization, one crime board comprised of members of each neighborhood organization, or perhaps an elected leadership like a school board. To eliminate the possibility of malfeasance (as has been alleged of some New Orleans school board members over the years), keep financial decisions out of the hands of the crime board. I would say the crime board should be created now, to serve for a transitional period, until the proper legal authority can be worked out for a permanent crime board.
- “Re-decentralize” the homicide bureau. There are a variety of reasons to do this. The homicide division was decentralized in the 1990’s to force homicide detectives into the districts where they could work more closely with their peers and the community to identify perpetrators, and to solve cases. Warren Riley recentralized the bureau without explaining why he was doing it. He may still have good arguments for that decision, but he ought to explain. I imagine he’d say he wanted to improve communication between homicide detectives, and keep them closer to the crime lab. I think there are other solutions to those problems which don’t require taking detectives away from the districts. The problem with taking detectives out of the districts is that it fundamentally weakens accountability to communities. Consider, for example, the case of Toby Beaugh, killed in a hit-and-run incident — probably by a contractor — on Magazine Street last carnival season. The perpetrator has never been identified and captured. Now, I really like Captain Hosli of the 2nd District. He’s one of the good guys. He knows why he’s at the NOPD. He’s no stranger to tragedy and loss. I’ve never heard him talk about it, but his own father was killed in the Howard Johnson shootout in 1973 when Hosli was twelve years old. Hosli was also out rescuing people from their flooded homes after Hurricane Katrina. I was disappointed, however, when I once asked him if he could provide an update on the Toby Beaugh case. He said he couldn’t, because homicide detectives didn’t communicate with him. Now, I would expect the chief of police to think that’s a problem, and to come up with a solution to improve communication between detectives and district captains. Furthermore, a less-capable commander in a district with a high murder rate could always use the excuse that he doesn’t have the resources he needs to fight the problem. This has to stop.
- Re-examine the COMSTAT process. What works? What doesn’t? Build a plan based upon successes. The overarching principle behind the COMSTAT process — initially developed to fight a skyrocketing crime problem in New York City — is accountability. The implementation of the process was to decentralize the massive bureaucracy, and to place command control and resources closer to problem areas. In return, commanders had to answer to their superiors for their successes and failures. Placing a respected but tough interrogator in the position of asking commanders to answer for crime in their realm of responsibility is key. The key person in that spot when the NOPD started its crime reductions in the late 1990’s was Deputy Superintendent Ronal Serpas. He was intelligent, he knew the statistics better than commanders and support personnel who answered to him, and he demanded discipline and respect toward the community. The COMSTAT process rewarded and promoted members of the police force who demonstrated success in reducing crime. Ronal Serpas was one of the products of that system, as are now many of the commanders throughout the NOPD. The old system of promoting people based upon seniority was diminished. There must be an independent and countervailing influence on this process, however, to maintain integrity in the process. The NOPD was always accused of “cooking the books” to show crime reductions. I don’t believe the practice was nearly as widespread as people might believe. Nevertheless, an institutional mechanism to prevent abuses has to be in place for the COMSTAT process to work.
- Consider implementing the zero tolerance policy used in New York City as an option for New Orleans. The principle is that even petty crimes, like graffiti, lead to the right “environment” for crime, encouraging anti-social behavior in individuals who may later turn to more and more anti-social behavior. The New Orleans criminal justice system may not be able to handle this kind of approach until it starts functioning better. In the meantime, the police may produce better results by a completely different approach — only making arrests for violent crimes. Other crimes could be handled by issuing a court summons instead of arresting a non-violent defendant. NOPD officers consume an extraordinary amount of time writing reports and making arrests. An arrest, in particular, takes a lot of time, because defendants have to be driven to lockup and taken into custody, booked, and a report has to be written. Arrests can take an officer off of the streets for hours.
- Restore community confidence in the criminal justice system. People are less-inclined to report crime or report crime tips if they feel that they or their families may be threatened. Furthermore, they won’t want to cooperate with the police if they don’t trust that the police share their values. Consider the “Danziger 7” — the officers accused of killing an innocent victim on the Danziger bridge, and unjustifiably shooting another. They were cheered by fellow officers when they were forced to “walk the line.” I absolutely won’t say those men are guilty. I won’t say they’re innocent. It doesn’t look good for them, but let the criminal justice system prove their guilt or innocence. When their fellow officers publicly cheered for them, however, they may have fostered the view that the police are above the law, thus deteriorating public confidence. I see this as a command control issue. Warren Riley should have issued orders throughout the entire NOPD bureaucracy about how the case would be handled publicly. That he didn’t, probably speaks to a problem of understanding the consequences of appearances to the community.
- Provide the same 911 calls for service data, and court data, directly to the community at the same time as it’s provided to the NOPD. The specific addresses can be decimated to protect the privacy of individuals. If this were done, audits of crime statistics wouldn’t be required, because the community would own the data. Members of the community wouldn’t have to wait until The Times-Picayune decides to publish incidents, and could be alerted immediately to emerging patterns of crime in their neighborhoods. The data could be dynamically mapped in an open source Web site for everyone to view on demand. The courts have a records management system which should be required to furnish similar data. Minimally, when an arrested individual is released, the public should be notified who the individual is, what the arrest was, whether the release was on bail or recognizance, or if the release was due to a failed prosecution, and which court issued the release.
- Improve the training of police officers, improve their effectiveness, and increase their numbers and compensation. Don’t stop with police officers. Work throughout the system to improve the quality of all personnel who the police rely upon to do their jobs. The entire city bureaucracy, for example, is crippled technologically because it relies upon civil service descriptions (and pay scales) which in many cases haven’t been updated in more than thirty years. All positions in the criminal justice system need to be competitive with private industry so that the best talent can be attracted. Support personnel are often overlooked because they aren’t visible, but their role is essential. Having the right people in key support positions is a force multiplier.
- Improve the technological capabilities of the criminal justice system. As just one example of a meaningful technological improvement, the NOPD needs a records management system for tracking, in particular, known offenders. The NOPD should also be tracking offenses as they move through the criminal justice system. If a known offender ends up back on the street because the courts couldn’t make a prosecution, the NOPD should know about it. Since a minority of criminals are repeat offenders responsible for the majority of crimes, keeping track of their movements and activities is essential to keeping citizens safe.
- The district attorney’s office appears to be a complete shambles. I have less confidence in the district attorney’s office than I do in the NOPD. I don’t know enough about the court system, and I’m not well-enough acquainted with the post-Katrina situation to make recommendations, but it seems to me that a top-down reorganization would be an improvement, starting at the top.
Yes, there are a host of conditions which breed criminal behavior. These have to be addressed to create the appropriate environment to foster positive behavior, and to instill hope in our youth. But these are longer-term issues. I sense that what people want are short-term solutions that will keep the criminals away from them and their loved ones — right now! We need to keep bad people from hurting good people today, so that tomorrow, or next week, some other loved member of our community isn’t senselessly lost to another violent act committed by people who are already criminals.
I wouldn’t like to vilify Warren Riley as an individual. Like many in the NOPD, he’s a good person who cares about his community, and who wants to do the right thing. I would, however, question his judgment, and his honesty in talking publicly about the impediments to a more effective police department.
Ray Nagin? I’m not so sure I’d be polite if given the opportunity.
Up the chain of elected leadership, Kathleen Blanco gets knocks for saying — in the midst of the current crime crisis and widespread mourning — that she was going to withdraw the National Guard from New Orleans streets because she couldn’t afford to keep them here. This is right on the heels of her attempt at a spending-spree special session.
George W. Bush? Need I say anything. As I’ve said before, when was the last time the man said anything about New Orleans? He’s now calling for an increased investment of resources in Iraq, but when we have so many needs here in New Orleans, and elsewhere around the country, he’s silent. He spends more money in Iraq in six weeks than has been allocated to help homeowners rebuild their homes and their neighborhoods — despite the fact that the failure of the federal levee systems demands not just “assistance,” but “compensation.”
The protests in Washington yesterday against Bush’s wildly-unpopular announcement of troop-level increases in Iraq may mark a historic change in citizen tolerance around the country for autocratic, imcompetent leadership in Washington. What happened in New Orleans yesterday marks the same trend on a local level. The rest of the nation should keep its focus on New Orleans, and support our efforts at building institutions which require more accountability from our elected leadership. As I’ve said elsewhere, and I’ll repeat again and again, as New Orleans goes, so goes the rest of the nation.
Laissez la révolution rouler!
As Alan said, citizens marching on City Hall yesterday decided they weren’t going to eat cake — to which I might add, at least not any cake which we haven’t baked ourselves.