Criminal Justice
 

Amid gunfire, Landrieu throws the weakest brick of all

Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu was awfully defensive in last week’s press conference about his search for a new police superintendent. Responding to internal criticism from four now-former members of his transition task force, Landrieu accused those who went public with their objections of being divisive.

“People in this town have learned how to throw bricks rather than build bridges. And that’s not a good way to do business.”

“I was a little bit disappointed that those individuals decided to pick up their balls and go home,” he said. “We have 17 members of the task force that completely are in tune with what we’re doing. We believe that we are doing it the right way.”

“Part of the dysfunction of New Orleans is people being unwilling to come to common ground and to decide that if they don’t get everything they want, to walk away,” he said. “That’s not a way to get to a good answer, and we have to re-discipline ourselves in this city.”

I was surprised to see the mayor-elect take such a critical tone against community leaders that he himself selected to serve on his most important task force. That Landrieu was willing to accuse Danatus King, the president of the local NAACP chapter and Baty Landis, a leader of Silence is Violence, the city’s most active grassroots anti-crime coalition, of “throwing bricks” is surprising. Landrieu must have a pretty high opinion of his own political cache to so facilely cast aside detractors. Landis was instrumental to turning out 10,000 protestors on City Hall in an anti-crime rally that yielded national headlines. The NAACP is among the nation’s oldest and most venerable civil-rights organization.

That strikes me as a rather odd calculation for a politician who ran for mayor on the promise to reduce crime and unite the city. Instead of acknowledging his critics’ concerns, Landrieu sent a message to those who go public with dissent.

Landrieu’s frustration with the public politics of his NOPD task force is understandable but self-inflicted.

There shouldn’t be much controversy over the minutia of meeting procedure or the decision to keep confidential the names of early applicants. Even if one disagrees with how Landrieu has constructed the task force, it is the outcome of the selection process that matters, not every perceived or exaggerated task force maneuver.

The problem for Landrieu, however, is the backdrop. The attention paid to the task force’s transparency debates is not really about transparency. It’s about the internationally infamous and extraordinarily shameful record of the NOPD from its historic and contemporary reputation for brutality and corruption to its poor preparation for Hurricane Katrina and its failure to be accountable for the allegations and evidence of unjustifiable police terror after the failure of the levee system.

Over the past week, we have learned of a third guilty plea in the Danziger Bridge cover-up, a new federal civil rights investigation into the Beach Corner Bar incident (the U.S. Justice Department’s eighth confirmed), and new brutally chilling details about the racist vigilantism allowed to occur in Algiers during the aftermath of Katrina.

Oh, and 15 people were shot in New Orleans in the past three days, including Saturday’s octuple shooting on Canal Street. The weekend before, 13 people were shot.

This is a real crisis.

New Orleans must fundamentally remake its police department and larger criminal justice system so that it can effectively uphold the law and pursue justice and safety for its residents. It is not about the pursuit of a flowery ideal – criminal-justice reform is a matter of life and death for the residents of New Orleans more than it is about avoiding more international embarrassment and shame.

There is also the matter of race. There is simply no denying that the consequences of our broken criminal justice system disproportionately harm the African American community. It isn’t just that there is a racist subtext (and obvious context) to be condemned while examining the attitudes of NOPD officers toward suffering African American New Orleans residents stranded in September 2005. It is the patently disproportionate harm experienced by African American residents throughout the criminal justice system. While the NOPD crisis is such that everyone can share in their disgust, there is simply no denying the historical precedent within the African American community.

Landrieu’s aggressive posture toward the relatively minor dissent on his NOPD task force might not otherwise be that interesting if not for this wider inescapable context.

Landrieu has a golden opportunity to deliver on his greatest campaign promises, that of an effective criminal-justice system and a harmonious city. If Landrieu were to implement real criminal-justice reform, he’ll have achieved a seemingly impossible goal and he’ll rightly be revered for it. Yet Landrieu will not be granted the deference he desires as he considers his selection for police superintendent if he uses intervening public appearances to brush aside the relatively benign critiques of critics. He could instead, just as an example, soberly articulate the city’s outrage and shame at the news that breaks seemingly with every dusk and dawn.

More simply put, it seems like the push for police accountability is something being foisted upon the fledgling Landrieu team instead of a movement that the mayor is leading himself. If I’m guilty of projecting assumptions and too finely parsing his public statements, the Landrieu team shouldn’t make it so easy. Demanding justice from the rooftops in an expletive-filled monologue would not be as controversial.

If Mayor Ray Nagin had just one shining moment it was in his desperate condemnation of federal rescue efforts to Garland Robinette. Landrieu has never been one to get his feathers ruffled but if there ever was a subject deserving of an emotional reaction, it is this one.

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