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Old Habits Die Hard in New Orleans
Posted on Jun 20, 2011
NEW ORLEANS—One balmy night in late April, Floyd Moore, a 31-year-old with a history of drugs and weapons violations, was riding his bicycle past the B.W. Cooper Housing Development in the impoverished Central City neighborhood of this port city hemmed between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.
He never made it to his destination.
The slaying was highly symbolic of the tide of violence washing over New Orleans. At the site of a public housing development that for several years has been in the process of being torn down in part and re-envisioned as a mixed-income area, police recovered more than 100 shell casings—including some from an assault rifle—around Moore’s lifeless body. A 21-year-old man from the neighborhood of Algiers, on the west bank of the Mississippi, is being sought for the killing.
Things were not supposed to turn out like this.
This city of nearly 344,000 boasts a unique, enticing cultural bouillabaisse in which optimistic “NOLA Rising” bumper stickers are common. An always eclectic and rollicking music scene has been joined by a vibrant artistic renaissance spurred both by local artists and hundreds of transplants from other parts of the United States who have moved here in recent years to take part in the hoped-for rebuilding following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
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With Landrieu, the city also got a new police chief, Ronal Serpas, who had previously been police chief of Nashville, Tenn., and who said at his swearing-in ceremony that, under his watch, the 1,395-member New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) would focus on violent crime “like a dog on a bone.”
However, last year New Orleans witnessed 175 murders, or roughly 52 per 100,000 residents—10 times above the national average and a level that puts the city’s homicide rate just behind that of violence-racked Guatemala (at 53 per 100,000), a country beset by warring street gangs and drug cartels. In a fairly typical 24-hour period this month, four people ranging in age from 20 to 52 were slain in different parts of the city.
Far from making a dent in the shocking homicide rate, the NOPD has instead been nearly consumed by a series of scandals, with many residents wondering aloud whether Serpas will survive as chief.
“We have a thriving drug trade, a lack of legitimate employment that creates a labor force for drug dealers, and a compromised criminal justice system,” says Peter Scharf, a professor at the Department of International Health and Development at the city’s Tulane University.
An investigation of the NOPD published in March by the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that “basic elements of effective policing—clear policies, training, accountability and confidence of the citizenry—have been absent for years” and that “constitutional violations span the operation of the entire Department.”
The report went on to detail the “severely deficient” training of officers and a worrying system of what are known as “paid details” whereby officers are allowed to work for private companies or individuals while in NOPD uniforms. The report called the system an “entrenched and unregulated” phenomenon that facilitated corruption within the department.
For weeks, Serpas himself has been mired in a mini-scandal of his own, one focusing on the outsourcing of traffic camera reviews to a company owned by a close friend. A police investigator has said that he has thus far found no evidence of wrongdoing on the chief’s part.
“The problem is when it comes to the police department, we have an endemic layer of corruption,” says Simone Levine, deputy for the New Orleans Office of the Independent Police Monitor, where a staff of four is charged with overseeing the behavior of the NOPD.
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