Kenneth Polite, the new U.S. Attorney charged with overseeing all federal prosecutions in New Orleans, grew up in the Calliope housing projects, but along the way lost a 23-year-old brother to street violence. After his brother’s death, Polite recalls walking into his brother’s bedroom and seeing the walls lined with pinned-up programs from funerals of his brother’s friends who had already been killed.
“That’s what he woke up to each day,” Polite said. “That type of environment, where that level of criminality becomes normal, has to affect your concept of life. It has to affect your concept of how you’re going to die. This is what he expected.”
That environment of death and violence that reaches into the home on a daily basis is the root cause of the decades of staggering murder rates in New Orleans, a panel of experts agreed Tuesday evening during the Tulane University Hillel Center “The Big Issue” debate. And the key to reducing the number of murders, the panelists said, is for citizens to personally intervene in those environments through mentoring at-risk children.
The first speaker, University of New Orleans biopsychology professor Elizabeth Shirtcliff, described research on young children that shows a variety of physiological changes in children who are exposed to violence in the household from an early age. Their hormone levels change, they experience the onset of puberty earlier, and even the telomeres in their DNA are shortened, which is normally associated with aging.
But the good news, Shirtcliff said, is that many of the biological adaptations are reversible — if the individual is moved into a more positive environment.
“They’re adaptations to a really messed-up context,” Shirtcliff said. “The take-home message is going to be, if we change the environment, we’re going to change the child.”
Marcus Kondkar, a sociology professor at Loyola University, said that the common assumption was that the exodus of New Orleans’ poorest residents and influx of more highly educated newcomers after Hurricane Katrina — essentially, swapping a demographic associated with high violent crime with one associated with lower crime rates — was widely assumed to predict a reduction in the city’s per-capita murder rate. Instead, Kondkar said, it soared, and was much higher in the years after Katrina than those before it.
Furthermore, the neighborhoods where crime took place were almost the exact same before and after the storm, Kondkar said, to the point that homicide maps of before and after are nearly identical. What may be more relevant is incarceration data — offenders are being released out of prison back into the same communities from which they came, essentially perpetuating the cycle of violence there, Kondkar said.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu acknowledges that environments are a key element in criminal behavior, which is why it is an important component of the NOLA for Life strategy, said that program’s chair, Charles West. While two of the five “pillars” of NOLA for Life focus on law enforcement — improving the NOPD through reforms and stopping the shootings through targeted investigations of the most violent offenders — three of the pillars are about changing environments: preventing crime within communities, creating more economic opportunities, and rebuilding neighborhoods.
For people looking for ways to help, West said the most critical way is to make a personal commitment to improving another child’s environment by becoming part of it. One-on-one mentoring is the most effective strategy, West said, because study after study has shown that a stable adult presence can be the biggest factor affecting a child’s life trajectory.
Polite said his office will be aggressively focusing on short-term solutions, using aggressive prosecution of federal law making it illegal for convicted felons to have guns, and using the Multi-Agency Gang Unit to break up neighborhood street gangs. But in reviewing a video of a drug deal for a narcotics case just this week, Polite said he could see a 4-year-old boy in the car with the drug dealers, watching inquisitively and asking questions as they haggled over cocaine.
Putting those men in jail, while necessary, won’t keep that boy from taking their place as the target of an investigation in 10 years, Polite said. Mentoring — on an individual level and in some extreme cases by much larger groups — is the only way to make a difference in the culture of death that ultimately enveloped his brother and persists around the city today, he said.
“We have to be able to effect the environments for these children,” Polite said.
Tuesday’s forum also included a question-and-answer session that discussed issues of poverty and gun ownership more directly. To read our live coverage of the panel, see below.