Friday, January 19, 2007

Crime and Politics

The flurry of murders to start the year has fueled the perception that violent crime is out of control in New Orleans. It doesn't really matter whether crime is in fact any worse, statistically, than in years past. The community seems to have lost confidence in its leaders to protect the City from the apparent seige. Right now, gunshots speak much louder than any marches, press conferences, and talk of curfews. If City Hall and criminals are both vying for our attention, the bad guys are winning. You get the sense that we're hanging by one hand on the window sill of law and order, and the criminals are slowly peeling our fingers away before we take a fateful plunge. We need leaders who will yank us back inside from the slippery ledge, not those who can only promise a flimsy net if we've already lost our grip.

The whole situation reminds me of Grouch Marx' observation about politics: It is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies. I don't know what the solution is. I'm fairly certain late-night checkpoints aren't it. I drove through one the other night and thought it a strange use of resources. The police can't blockade every route through the City, and they seem most likely to end up arresting a bunch of drunk drivers. (I doubt you could say drunk driving is part of the City's 'charm,' but installing checkpoints right before Mardi Gras might dampen some of the tourists' enthusiasm for the place, and we certainly don't want to give people any more reason not to visit.) I don't see how stopping cars at stationary checkpoints in the middle of the night is going to have a significant impact on violent crime.

The emphasis on community policing seems a good place to start. Building relationships and confidence in the community may encourage concerned citizens to contact their community partners when they see something suspicious, and hopefully to come forward when they witness crimes. Spending resources investigating and prosecuting the most violent criminals also seems sensible. We've been trying the trickle-up approach -- the theory that zero tolerance for petty crime will reduce more serious crime -- but that doesn't seem to be working. (Perhaps people who know they won't be harassed for every petty infraction will be more willing to help the police combat more serious crime?) We need more leadership and a new approach, not political pep rallies and more of the same.

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