New Orleans Tries to Police Its Thin Blue Line

ON one wall of the New Orleans Police Department, detectives mark the site of every murder with a tiny red flag on a city map. Last year's map was a few flags short, one detective explains, because they ran out of space.

With 425 killings in 1994, New Orleans had the highest murder rate per capita of any American city. While people here wince at this distinction, they are even more disturbed by another fact: Forty of last year's crimes - from rape to murder - were allegedly committed by police.

Police departments from New York to Los Angeles have faced charges of brutality, corruption, or lewd behavior by officers. But only New Orleans has faced them all. This year, the department expects to log as many as 1,200 complaints against its 1,500 officers.

Yet now New Orleans may be on the cusp of change.

A new superintendent, a reformist mayor, and a platoon of citizen groups hope to clean up the police department, take back the streets, and prevent the exodus of middle-class taxpayers to the suburbs.

"There is a lack of trust and confidence in the police in our city," said Eddie Jordan, the United States Attorney here, during a recent speech. "It reminds us how thin the blue line is between civilization and anarchy."

Leading the fight for reform are Mayor Marc Morial, who was elected on a promise to fix the police problem, and his handpicked superintendent, Richard Pennington - formerly chief of police in Washington, D.C.

With federal help, Mayor Morial and Mr. Pennington have instituted a $2.8 million community-policing program in New Orleans' three most troubled public housing developments.

Where officers used to be viewed as invaders, says Lt. Edwin Compass, the unit commander, they now shoot baskets with youngsters and help residents deal with problems such as stray dogs. Since the program began four months ago, he says, there has only been one murder in these projects.

Morial and Pennington also replaced the old internal affairs office with a "Public Integrity" division. In order to make citizens more comfortable lodging complaints, they moved the unit out of police headquarters.

With help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the division is conducting what Maj. Felix Loicano calls "integrity testing" whereby unwitting officers are placed in monitored situations to see how they respond.

In addition, Pennington has tightened admissions standards at the police academy, limited the number of paid security details police can perform in off-duty hours, and lobbied for a salary increase for officers - now the nation's lowest paid. He has ordered new cruisers, new computers, and new uniforms, and pursued a controversial policy to deny promotions to officers who move to the suburbs.

While the reforms are welcome, says Mary Howell, a civil- rights attorney and longtime critic of the department, they are also overdue. "What these things do," she says, "is bring the New Orleans Police Department into the late 20th century."

It is too early to tell, Ms. Howell says, whether the reforms can ferret out all the dirty cops: a segment of the force that some here put at 15 percent.

In the last year, that figure has been easy to imagine. Last fall, an officer was arrested for raping a Tulane University student in a patrol car. Another officer, was arrested for hiring a hit man to murder a woman who filed a complaint against him. And in March, Officer Antoinette Frank and an accomplice allegedly robbed a Vietnamese restaurant while on duty, shooting three employees to death, including off-duty Officer Ronald Williams.

POLICE say it's time to work toward restoring public trust. "We realize that our screening process and our disciplinary process were not what they should have been," Major Loicano says. "There is a direct parallel between the rate of crime and the perception of the police. Until people start to believe we are a competent, efficient department, the crime rate will remain where it is."

Jim Fyfe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, says that the troubles of New Orleans follow a pattern in many inner cities where residents, many of them poor and uneducated, lack the political influence to fight police abuses.

But New Orleans, he says, is in some ways unique. With its history of gambling, drugs, and prostitution, it can be a hard place for a police officer to steer straight.

Police corruption, Howell says, has been "systemic and relentless" since the 1950s with periods of ebb and flow. In recent years, she says, the gangsters took control, and began "acting with impunity."

The department's conviction rate for crimes is abysmal, in part because many jurors here no longer believe the police. With all this wasted effort, combined with the money spent to prosecute crooked cops and pay damages to their victims, Howell says the problem has become "horrendously expensive."

That is not good news for New Orleans. With the oil boom of the 1980s flat, the city is more reliant than ever on tourism: an industry that is extremely crime-sensitive. With more homeowners moving out and eroding the tax base, the city's already devastated public school system faces more cutbacks. In a recent national poll of top business locales, CEOs ranked New Orleans last.

Yet amid all the negatives, there are rays of light. Tourism set a record here last year, and so far in 1995, crime is down. The real estate market in some of the city's most coveted neighborhoods has started to rebound slightly, and a wave of new restaurants, shops, and casinos has filled vacant buildings.

"This will either be a story of redemption or ruin," says city Councilman Roy Glapion, "Of course, we're all pushing for the redemption."

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