Police Chief Serpas has concocted a curious strategy for dealing with New Orleans’ intractable crime problem, particularly our sky-high homicide rate. It all comes down to managing expectations.
For the past year, Serpas has issued a police press release detailing the rap sheet of any murder victim (if they had one, which is generally the case). This even includes victims with no convictions, only arrests where charges were never brought or were later dropped.
Serpas’ strategy has received less than glowing reviews from Times-Picayune columnists Jarvis DeBerry and James Gill. DeBerry accuses Serpas of being so preoccupied with public relations that he’s refusing to deal with the murder epidemic that plagues our city.
Although the fact that a murder victim had a violent past may be relevant in some cases, DeBerry concedes, “pointing out that one murder victim was arrested for solicitation 21 years before her demise or that a teenage victim had once been arrested (but not convicted) for fighting seems part of an overall plan Serpas has to reject the murder rate as a measure of his performance.”
Gill minces fewer words, accusing Serpas of essentially arguing that “it’s your own damn fault if you get shot around here.”
At the risk of piling on poor ‘ol Serpas, I must agree that DeBerry and Gill are on to something here. Serpas set the pathetic goal of reducing the murder rate by a paltry 5%, and ultimately the murder rate increased by 14% in 2011. Tarring murder victims under these circumstances reeks of desperation, and it’s a bit unseemly to boot.
On the other hand, I do sympathize with Serpas. I’ve made the point before myself both in this column and in casual conversation, that most murders in this city are between criminals and our murder rate actually says little about your average citizen’s risk of being victimized by violent crime.
However, I’m a mild-mannered columnist writing for a neighborhood Internet news site (who would never be confused with Superman) while Serpas is the Chief of Police (and he is frequently confused with Chief Clancy Wiggum from “The Simpsons”). When I put the crime rate in perspective, it’s good commentary, but when Serpas does it, it’s excuse-making.
What’s more, Serpas is taking it too far. Citing decades-old arrests (not convictions) for the proposition that a murder victim “lived by the sword” is untenable, particularly where you’re dealing with minor and/or nonviolent offenses. I’m sure that most of us know somebody who has been arrested at least once in the distant past, and were they ever a murder victim, we’d be disgusted if Serpas trotted it out as if to say “he had it coming.”
Still, there’s a nagging thought in the back of my mind that Serpas is really caught in a no-win situation. I’m not convinced that he really has the ability to change the murder rate given the factors behind it (cultural and socioeconomic). Thus, his only option may well be to blame the victims. Even granting Serpas that concession, though, only means that he’s willing to slam others in order to save his own political skin. The best case scenario is itself a less-than-flattering portrayal.
We need a comprehensive public debate on how to deal with our homicide rate, and it’s long overdue. When people are gunned down in the streets, even violent criminals, all of us risk being placed in the crossfire. When we hear that another toddler took a round to the head, it’s cold comfort to announce that the intended target was a scumbag. It’s even less comforting when the intended target was not a scumbag, but just an innocent with a stale, bogus arrest from back when members-only jackets were all the rage.
Serpas may be caught in a Catch-22, but he can acquit himself better than this. I, for one, am capable of managing my own damn expectations.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.