Thursday, February 14, 2008

Connecting the Bullet Hole Dots

Yesterday, the T-P ran a picture and a story in its metro section that has created quite a stir.

This is the article. It describes the press conference that Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Chief Warren Riley held to tout the delivery of new equipment for the NOPD.

Here is the photograph that accompanied the story:

That's the Mayor pointing a gun at the Police Chief. They're having a helluva laugh.

This picture inherently presents any number of punchlines at the expense of an incompetent Mayor and an incompetent Police Superintendent.

The Times Picayune itself, determined that the picture was so ridiculous that it could impartially run a caption contest on its website so that people could get in on the fun.

People sure did. The photo, according to that link above, which has since been updated, received "national notoriety." The talk radio phone lines went off the hook. Bloggers had plenty to say as well.

Some people just went for the one-liners. Others extended further to describe Nagin and Riley's playful attitude as glorifying guns and gun culture in a city gripped by violence.

Jeffrey went to town with the jokes, check out the caption contest try-outs at adrastos.

Maitri took the latter approach. She posted a picture of a young child posing defiantly with a gun and a wad of cash just beneath that of Nagin and Riley.

"Both of these pictures show boys with their toys, bad-ass gangsters in their own minds. This is not the kind of example Nagin and Riley ought to set for the youth of New Orleans."

So did People Get Ready:

"Mayor Ray Nagin demonstrated exceptionally poor judgment — in a city with an entrenched culture of violence — and a grave lack of gun safety education, by pointing a very real assault rifle at New Orleans police chief Warren Riley. Oh, but playing cops and gangstas is so much fun! Nagin is such a child! That sort of childish behavior might be tolerated around the water cooler when you’re just a middling Cox monopoly bureaucrat, but not when you command attention as mayor."

Alan was also pissed and condemns our Mayor as a castrated leader who is such a joke the only thing he's good at is making jokes:

"A childish man in a position of power. A childish man who’s inabilities are nationally renown. A childish man who can no longer gain audiences with true leaders and people of means. A childish man who has nothing left to say to the press or the public.

When put before us now, all he can do is cut up.

He is entirely incapable of representing the City of New Orleans, the citizens of New Orleans, and their plight. The consistent mismanagement of state and federal funds means that we are unable to put the funding provided us to work. It languishes in the pipeline plugged at our end by the incompetence of the Nagin administration."

The uproar forced the Nagin press team to respond.

They lodged a protest against the Times-Picayune alleging that the photograph is snapshot being evaluating completely out of the context of the situation. Video of that press conference apparently show that Nagin had only momentarily lifted the gun up and was not pointing it at Riley.

The Times-Picayune printed a clarification, essentially agreeing that they had selected a misleading photograph, and one that did not necessarily reflect the realities of the press conference.

Blogger Pistolette's comments made me think the most:

"Except for the occasional joke, he gets away with it all. Apathy. Why? What protects Mayor Ray Nagin from getting the social guillotine? Where is the anger? There is simply not enough criticism, not enough noise. Why is it that people can drone on for hours about the "serious repercussions" of David Vitter getting some illicit nookie, but turn the other way with a "c'est la vie" smirk while Ray Nagin destroys us?"

I thought about Pistollete's lament in the question she poses:

"Where is the anger?"

There seems to me to be a lot of anger. People HATE this mayor. People realize how he is in danger of stalling this city into the gulf. Council seems to be fairly united against him. Our representatives there are constantly expressing ire at the Mayor's secrecy, the Mayor's incompetence, the Mayor's policies.

But I see what Pistollete is saying. There does seem to be an attitude that the Mayor's ridiculousness is an unchangeable reality. There does seem to be a "we're stuck with him, oh well" attitude. "Oh, what a jackass, there he goes again!"

I sense that attitude because I see it in myself. He's a lame duck, what can we do about him besides laugh and smirk and shake our heads?

The problem, I think, is that the anger has become so associated with this man's personality that we lose sight of this man's power. (And he does have personality, sometimes he's pretty funny, I have to admit he can come up with a zinger from time to time.)

I think we do sometimes forget that this is the most powerful man in the city. This is the most powerful office in the city. I think we've given up trying to lobby him to make changes. Saddest of all, I think sometimes that we've gone easy on him. We don't watch him like we should because we've already assumed the worst.

When I saw the caption in the newspaper I got real embarrassed. Of course I was embarrassed for the city over the mayor and I was embarrassed at the way the T-P made a joke out of things instead of addressing some legitimate concerns related to police spending and police practices.

I was also a little embarrassed for myself. You see, I had been working on a long piece that addressed the NOPD way back in December. I was investigating the 2008 public safety budget as approved by City Council. It would have been extremely relevant yesterday had I taken the initiative to finish it. Instead, I got disillusioned trying to find the information I needed. I moved onto other projects. I kind of let it go.

But it's not all lost. I still have the incomplete draft I was working on exactly two months ago.

I read this article in the T-P way back in November. Here is my response to it. The article is long and comprehensive. I don't feel comfortable annotating the thing here because I think everybody needs to read all of it. (Or at least my response which does include large excerpts)

Essentially, the T-P piece reveals the details of an internal audit of the NOPD that had been conducted throughout the first six months of 2007. The NOPD, when the report was completed over the summer, released a rose-tinted version of the report to the public. Finally, in November, the Times Picayune learned of the comprehensive findings of the full audit. Those findings paint a harrowing picture of the NOPD, one that reflects incredibly poorly on the NOPD leadership and on a Mayor too lame to ask the right questions of his top lieutenants. You have to read the whole thing. Please go here and read the whole thing. If you care about the issue of crime in this city, it is imperative that you have the information reported in this article, it forms the basis of what we, as citizens need to be looking for from the NOPD over the next year.

Essentially, the article and the audit on which it was based outline the several critical fronts on which the NOPD has failed to institute the community policing practices it purportedly believes in. "Community policing," unfortunately, has taken on a lot of different interpretations as an overarching term for new police strategies. In essence, community policing is a set of general principles that stress tactics designed to repair police department relations with the public, increase police contact with the public, and create an environment in which the police and the public work together. I talk a little bit more about defining "community policing" in New Orleans toward the end of my response to the TP article about the audit. Certainly, it is a discussion we citizens need to have. Community policing is a term has been sometimes hijacked by business interests that then turn the tactics and practices into ones that castrate the original mission to better integrate the police and residential communities. We must be careful of that here too.

Anyway, what does that have to do with the picture of the Mayor and the Superintendent and the guns?

Well, one of the criticisms lodged by many NOPD officers in the big audit involved the continued use of catch-and-release policy that leads to lots of minor arrests and damages police relationships in residential neighborhoods.

Not long after that big audit article, there was another couple of pieces relevant to the NOPD and New Orleans crime:

During the first week of December, the Justice Policy Institute issued a report called:
The Vortex: The Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug Imprisonment and the Characteristics of Punitive Counties

I'll let this Times-Picayune article tell you the details:

The Orleans Parish criminal justice system imprisons drug offenders at a rate higher than all but two counties nationwide, and Jefferson Parish isn't far behind, according to a report released this week... "In Louisiana, you lock up a lot of people for drugs," said Lawanda Johnson, spokeswoman for the think tank. "It's obvious they are spending a lot of time, a lot of money imprisoning people in these (parishes). Those dollars could be better spent in communities, in drug treatment and prevention, and in policing..."

Orleans imprisoned four black people for every white person, according to the report. Jefferson Parish imprisoned nine African-Americans for each white person.

Orleans Parish's criminal justice system came under the microscope recently in a review by the Vera Institute, another think tank, which recommended the legal system focus more on violent offenders and look at alternative sentencing options for low-level crimes and drug offenders.

Hmm. So that kind of corroborates the ongoing adherence to a "zero tolerance" approach that directly contradicts the NOPD's stated desire to update its tactics to reflect a community policing approach.

Then that next weekend there was a big drug policy conference in ye olde French Quarter. What'd the T-P get from that?

Attendees at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in the French Quarter this past week represented the whole spectrum of opinions: crime fighters and former inmates, legalization advocates and opponents, casual users and part-time abusers.

As the conference, which ended Saturday, dissected the country's drug culture, no topic or approach was taboo.

But as a succession of speakers discussed their roles in the nation's war on drugs, the consensus was clear: The war is being lost....

Nowhere are failed government policies more clearly on display than in Louisiana, where drug offenders are jailed at among the highest rates in the nation, speakers said. Treatment and rehabilitation options are limited, zero-tolerance tactics are fruitless and poverty is high, they said.

"The criminal justice system in New Orleans was always in a sad state of affairs, yet very good at making a high number of arrests," said Bruce Johnson of the National Development Research Institute... ... It was unclear whether any members of the New Orleans Police Department were on hand. The department's Public Information Office did not return requests for comment.

But it's not just that the NOPD has been slow to institute changes, it's that they seem to be going backward...

Before the public got wind of the details of the audit, the Mayor proposed his 2008 budget. In it, he outlined funding for a new cache of machine guns and two "Harry Lee-type" tanks.

Dangerblond remarked that Mr. Nagin must believe that he's the Mayor of Baghdad.

I wrote a piece shortly thereafter that questioned whether or not this type of spending addressed the needs of the NOPD. In it, I examined the Police Superintendent's statements regarding the wave of violence plaguing New Orleans during the third quarter of 2007:

"We have a cultural and a people problem in New Orleans," he said. "Unfortunately, New Orleans has a culture of violence in some segments of our community, and it's going to be a longtime process to try to change that."

Ya know, I'm going to go ahead and agree with Police Superintendent The Warren Riley and my own added emphasis to the above quote. Making New Orleans a safe city will be a long-term endeavor that requires an approach that goes beyond the reach of a police department's responsibilities. More from the Times-Pic on Riley:

He characterized the local crime picture as deeply entrenched in poverty and poor education.

Does anyone know how many teachers the police department employs? How do tanks and machine guns help people rise from poverty?

It's not as though Riley is advocating for the disolution of the police department in favor of an approach that only attacks root causes, he knows the police department has a specific job to do:

As the city's population continues to build, the NOPD is trying to replenish its depleted ranks, but it remains understaffed, Riley said.

The NOPD staffing level has dropped to 1,352 officers, with an additional 60 recruits in training. Riley said he hopes to boost staffing to 1,600 next year.

"As we gain personnel . . . we'll be able to cover the city better," he said.

The police superintendent seems to indicate here that New Orleans needs more cops on the streets to combat the crime emergency. Yet for the long-term, Mr. Riley believes that measures outside the reach of a traditional police department are required.

Sounds logical to me. Can't think of any reason the city can't adopt a two-pronged approach.

The proposal calls for... what Nagin called a pair of "Harry Lee-type tanks" and the "latest and greatest" machine guns. "We're going to have some 'shock and awe' stuff to take care of some of the criminal element out there," he said.


I was mad then, wasn't I? "Toys for a childish Mayor," I said. Exactly the reaction everyone's been having to Mayor Nagin in the photographs that surfaced yesterday, huh?

The 2008 budget with the tank proposal came out in early November, over the next two weeks were the stories related to the audit, the drug conference and our drug arrest rate.

I became very involved with the public housing debate but I didn't forget about all these articles.

I started making phone calls to City Councilpeople, the NOPD communications office, and to T-P writers that might know more details about the tank proposal and other things in the 2008 public safety budget.

I got the run around. But I admit it was around Christmas time and I didn't do enough hounding. I was able to track down a copy of the 2008 budget that Mr. Nagin proposed to Council but I was unable to get a copy of the budget that Council actually approved, though it was made very clear that Council pretty much approved everything in there, including the guns and the tanks.

One person I asked described Mr. Nagin's "tanks" as nothing more than new mobile command centers, the type of vehicles used to monitor Mardi Gras crowds. This seemed like a less egregiously stupid expenditure, especially given the parade shootings we've experienced over the years. I took that description as accurate.

I had wanted to get a line-item 2008 budget from the NOPD so that I could examine the spending proposals to see if they reflected a shift toward community policing practices.

I admit I stopped looking after awhile. I was working a lot to pay the bills. Mardi Gras hit.

I wish that I'd hounded Council offices BEFORE they'd even had the chance to rubber stamp the 2008 budget.

Because clearly, we just bought a couple of tanks and some machine guns. They're not Dukakis tanks but they certainly aren't the mobile command units used during Mardi Gras. They're designed to break up riots.

It reflects the bunker mentality of the whole administration.

Better to protect our castle in the sky from the citizens on the ground just in case they get mad that we're not protecting the citizens on the ground.

How do those tanks help repair relationships with the community? How do those tanks get witnesses to come forward in murder cases? How do those tanks restore trust?

They don't!

Do the machine guns help?


But those types of questions are not being asked. We need a controversy over the NOPD's lack of effort in implementing the tactical changes their own audits recommend. We need a controversy involving the lack of spending in ways that aid the institution of those practices.

Instead, the controversy is over the photograph. The controversy is whether or not the photograph helps or hurts our fight against violent crime. The controversy is whether or not the photograph was taken out of context.

That is unfortunate.

Warren Riley and Ray Nagin are incompetent not because they were foolish enough to arrogantly play around with the guns but because they were foolish enough to buy the guns.

Warren Riley should be removed as NOPD Superintendent because of his leadership decisions flatly contradict the strategies that he himself believes would work to reduce violent crime in this city. He shouldn't be removed because he sucks at photo ops and sucks at public relations. He should be removed because he sucks at running a police department.

Pistolette was right to raise questions about citizen anger. But I believe it is there. I just think it is misdirected. We must force Mr. Riley to change his attitudes and to change his practices. One thing that I like about NOPD officers below Mr. Riley is that they can take tough questions. Here is a link to a listing of community meetings that the NOPD holds.

Will you go to the meetings to ask pointed questions about police practices, tactics, leadership, and spending? Or will you "turn the other way with a 'c'est la vie' smirk?" I believe that if we can become more coordinated in our questioning, if we can become more coordinated in our anger, we can force concessions from the police department leadership. The released NOPD audit explains that NOPD officers want to see changes too, that NOPD officers are concerned about their own safety, that NOPD officers don't believe in Mr. Riley's policing principles. We should help them!

It is imperative. Mr. Riley's stubborn inability to implement his own recommendations are magnified by TODAY'S Times-Picayune. Crime is up in 2008. We feel it in the Irish Channel and the LGD. There have been something like 7 or 8 shootings here since Mardi Gras. No arrests, no witnesses. Retaliatory violence perpetuates when people have no faith in the criminal justice system.


mominem said...

Great piece. One small point I think the money for the the tanks came from the state, apparenlty ar the NOPD's request.

GentillyGirl said...

This a wonderful summation of the situation here in the city. It falls in line with something I've been writing, and writing, and re-thinking.... aarrgghhhh.

We MUST get rid of Nagin, and in doing that, remove Riley. It's far past time for some competence in New Orleans.

E said...

I think you're right. I think the money came down from the state.

It's still taxpayer money and the spending is still counter to the priorities our police department ought to have.

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