Amid a chorus of upset voices raised over escalating violence around New Orleans, a volunteer at Johnson Elementary School asked police officials Tuesday night what could be done to keep schoolchildren safe, since a man was gunned down in the street just outside her campus late last year.
“There’s nothing you can do,” piped up another woman, a longtime teacher: All you can do is teach the children to drop to the floor quickly when the shooting starts.
That exchange was just one of many despairing anecdotes Tuesday night at the NOPD Second District’s monthly community meeting — a normally-placid event that rarely involves complaints more serious than basic quality of life issues. Many of the same neighborhood leaders and ardent police supporters who always attend the meeting were there this month, but their comments Tuesday had a suddenly urgent, frightened and angry tone as they asked why crime seems to be spreading so quickly, and why police seem so unable to respond to it.
One Carrollton resident said her house had been broken into in the last week, and that she saw the burglar walking out her front door as she arrived home — but it took police four hours to arrive on the scene. Another woman, a Valence Street resident, said she saw a man on New Year’s Eve climb atop a car and shoot out the streetlights in her block, but that police never arrived at all.
Tim Garrett of the State Street Drive neighborhood said he, too, has started hearing from neighbors that they called police for various reasons, but that officers never showed up.
“That’s unusual to me,” Garrett said. “I had been bragging on your response times, up until about a month ago.”
Many of the 20 or so audience members Tuesday demanded to know exactly what kind of manpower is available in the Second District, which stretches from the police station at Magazine and Napoleon up to Hollygrove. Capt. Bruce Adams, the interim commander of the Second District, explained that each shift has a patrol platoon of 13 to 15 officers, though the number is lowered any given day by time off, sick days and other routine personnel issues.
When the numbers reach too low, there are about a dozen “task force” and narcotics officers normally assigned to prevention efforts and targeted efforts that Adams can use to supplement the officers answering routine calls. And when calls for service completely overwhelm the number of officers available, Adams can pull district detectives off their investigations to help out, or begin answering calls himself, he said.
“Do I think we’re in a state of emergency? The answer is yes,” Adams says. “I’m not pulling any punches. We need more officers.”
The reluctance of the city leaders to admit the problem and ask for help from the National Guard smacks of political calculations, not public safety considerations, the residents said. Further, they argued, Second District police should not be reassigned to downtown areas for major tourist events, such as New Year’s Eve — those areas should have the resources to take care of themselves.
“You have to take it back to the higher ups: We really don’t care about the French Quarter,” said resident Richard McCormack.
The increase in violent crime Uptown is not the residents’ imagination. While the number of crimes reported in the Second District rose only 5 percent overall in 2011, the district recorded 25 murders in 2011 — up from nine the year before and accounting for the majority of the citywide increase. Armed robberies soared from 72 in 2010 to 98 in 2011.
The community leaders — representing nearly every neighborhood in the Second District — said they would be reassured if they heard a more concrete plan being articulated by city leaders, rather than an insistence that the current efforts are working.
“It really has spun out of control,” said Barbara Johnson, a leader of the Central Carrollton Association who herself was a robbery victim last month. “Literally, there’s a war going on, and we’re all on the front lines.”
One Riverbend resident recounted a group of unfamiliar young people walking in her block who struck neighbors as suspicious. They called police, but because the teens weren’t actively breaking laws, they weren’t stopped. A few days later, the Riverbend neighbors recognized a girl in the group as the same teen arrested in a series of Carrollton-area carjackings in which the victims were pepper-sprayed.
“Call police every time you think something is wrong,” Adams urged the audience. “A nosy neighbor is the best thing you can have.”
For the audience — people on a first-name basis with many Second District leaders — that advice was insufficient to calm their fears.
“We are those people!” several cried out together in response.
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