Owen Courreges: The Serpas quandary

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Owen Courreges

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.

11 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: The Serpas quandary

  1. I couldn’t agree more, “blame the victim” smacks of desperation and makes the city look bad. Serpas can’t see the forest for the trees and has lost the image war.

  2. Remember the Save Our Sons Crime Summit at UNO? I attended with high hopes of real solutions for our ever growing crime problem. They touted a resource section where we would be able to gather great information on organizations that we could join fores with to combat crime. I must confess, I was sorely disappointed in this entire effort. First, we were painfully subjected to about 45 minutes of singing by a local school choir. I was not happy about this, as I felt there were much more important things I could have been doing with my Saturday morning. I know some folks probably enjoyed this, but couldn’t 2 songs be enough? Then, I never did see the resource tables, they were placed in a very out of the way, inconvenient area and there was no direction or signs saying where they were. They passed out comment cards so people could make suggestions and volunteer to help the cause. I made several suggestions on my comment card and to date no one has contacted me about them. And remember the VoCal program? Volunteers Can Lead? Where you could volunteer with NOPD? I called the first day that the VoCal program was announced, to volunteer. After being transferred 5 times, I never was able to reach the person to speak to about this. So I emailed Remy Braden about it and got a response that she was too busy to deal with my request at the time, try again next week. I never heard from her again. At the summit, there was a large group of community leaders, many from those ubiquitous “non-profits” that no one has ever heard of, making promises about what strategies they would employ to combat this deadly community health issue. I’d really like to know how accountable the city is holding them to their promise and exactly how many of these strategies have actually been developed and implemented.
    I’m a trauma nurse, I have seen the effects of using guns to resolve conflicts, you don’t have to tell me about this. I’ve seen the horror that families experience when a child dies from violence. But when concerned citizens call out to help and no one responds, where do you go from here? It makes one think, do they really want us to get involved?
    Thank you, Owen. and thank the Uptown Messenger for providing a way for me to get this off my chest.

  3. When I first broached the subject of publishing crime victims’ rap sheets, it was right in front of Chief Serpas, NOPD brass and civilians gathered at Gallier Hall to hear Crime Commissioner James Carter’s inaugural presentation on “SOS”. I said to the assembly of about 200 people, “I think NOPD ought to reconsider this policy, because it gives the public exactly the opposite impression [of what Carter was trying to convey in his presentation; namely, that ‘less than 15% of violent crime is drug-related’ and that ‘we need the community to step up and help solve the crime problem’].”
    As writers Courreges, Gill and DeBerry (and others) now point out, that’s exactly what’s happened: People see these NOPD press releases and imagine that violent crime in New Orleans (a) is mostly drug-related, (b) happens between gangsters, and (c) that no amount of additional policing or input from the public could do anything to stem the tide of violence.
    Meanwhile, sadly, the nascent “SOS” program got off to a ridiculous start – as the poster above correctly recounts – and does not show signs of proving one way or the other whether a holistic approach (however well-intentioned) to crime in this City can achieve statistically significant results. Most people, when asked about the efficacy of Carter’s “Saving Our Sons” initiative, are quick to call it by another name: “Same Old S&I#”

  4. This issue is pure red herring and distraction. Changing how murders get reported in the newspaper isnt going to stop a single killing. And as Owen C points out, the homicide rate is not a reliable quality of life indicator. Armed robbery is and I think Serpas is doing as good job as he can on that score. Jarvis Deberry on the other hand has never offered a good solution for anything to my knowledge. James Gill is a clever writer but makes all his noise from his perch in Jefferson Parish.

  5. Sometimes when I listen to Serpas, it reminds me of an episode of The Wire. When Mayor Mitch is standing beside him and also is talking, the similarity becomes even more prounounced.

    There is a definite sense as these murders continue to be reported
    in this way, that the murder victims “deserved it”.

    Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, NOPD…

  6. To Tim G, thank you for validating my thoughts on the SOS summit. Also, have you ever watched Serpas at the City Council meetings? Talk about dodging the questions. and although I would love to work on that Crime Commission, (I’m a Forensic Nurse and Private Investigator) Does anything they all say in political speak have any substance( for that perspective, of course {tongue in cheek}).

  7. As any reader of this space knows, I have pointed out the musings of the master of PR, Mr. Ronal Serpas, on many occasions. But on this occasion, I am going to defend the practice of publishing the past arrest records of murder victims. I think it is instructive to know who is getting killed and who is not. The tendency of liberals is to turn issues, even crime, into an ecumenical tableau where we’re all in this together. That may be a good thing for crime in general where we all are in danger of being victimized, but not for the typical murder victim in N.O. People with lengthy arrest records do not represent me or anyone I associate with. I have a very large circle of friends and co-workers with nary an arrest on their records. This is not to say that someone with a long history of arrests deserves to be murdered, they most certainly do not. But that old saw about living by the sword has a lot of truth to it. I have no idea why a generation of killers roams the streets of our city. What I do know is that I have a much greater chance of being robbed than killed while out and about in New Orleans. And that fact is robbing this city of its potential.

  8. A few quick thoughts. Do we have a mayor? Why is Serpas the only one presenting and defending a strategy? Did Mitch say, “It’s all yours, Ron. Good luck! Let me know how it goes.” For all of the administration’s show of focusing on performance management, where is the community in the identification of priorities? The community develops a sense of skin in the game when public officials show respect and deference toward them. Not so, Mitch. What about measuring other components of the criminal justice system? Court docket loads, court outcomes, D.A. effectiveness, funding levels necessary for the public defender’s office, etc.? In other words, where are the weaknesses in the system that could offer opportunities for real tactical reductions in the murder rate? The fact that so many victims have records and return to lives of depravity and violence speaks to a complete failure of both the tactical ability of the entire criminal justice system to keep dangerous people removed from society, but also the failure of any kind of long-term strategy to tackle the factors that breed criminal behavior in the first place. From my vantage and experience, the performance management and neighborhood engagement projects are thin veneers of reform, and they reek of a lack of mature, experienced, professional, “been in the trenches” gut instincts in the mayor’s appointments of political allies and.politically expedient people to high-paid positions, instead of engaging in real, well-advertised, competitive searches for “content area experts” who have actual.experience and results they can point to in other cities. Here’s an example: Instead of measuring murder, and how many youth are thrown in jail, how about we start measuring how many youth stay out of jail because the city can point to specific programs that create hope, opportunity, and meaningful activities. Watch for the Landrieu administration to seize upon the idea as if they came up with it first. What I mean to say is that Mitch has his priorities wrong, because he refuses to listen to suggestions which, to him, look like criticisms. He gets extremely, clinically, predictably defensive, instead of taking his licks, embracing those who have something to contribute, and living forward together. Mitch snubs people, and his inability to create a climate of shared problem solving just makes people suspicious – something that the community is clearly reading (e.g., MLK Day/NAACP controversy). I have diminishing expectations that Mitch will actually be a great mayor. He’s better than Nagin (which isn’t saying much), but so far he’s failed to prove to me that he’s doing anything more than just setting up talking points for his re-election campaign.

  9. I think it would be instructive to look into the kind of family life and parenting both victims and murderers had. It is known that early childhood, the first 3to5 years, is the most important stage for shaping an individual’s character, Unless parenting and family life is addressed, all the outside programs won’t solve the crime problem.

  10. The administration clearly needs to hire another six-figure czar to solve this problem.

    “An option is a case management program where at-risk adolescents and repeat offender adults are mentored by trained professionals and connected to services and social programs that foster proper communication skills, life-skills training and vocational training, which could help improve the socioeconomic barriers that trap individuals into a life of crime and related violence.” ~ http://bit.ly/ypeQsP

    F. Eickelhoft: Discussions such as this are finished as soon as people begin to use that lazy device of pinning labels to ideas and people as a broad stereotype. I would much prefer that people refrain from saying things like, “the tendency of liberals …” Can one not be liberal on some issues, and diverge on crime? Do any crime-fighting approaches fall neatly into conservative and liberal bins? As to your comment that we shouldn’t worry about murder because the thugs will get their due, and the rest of us should worry about robbery – have you known anyone who’s been murdered in this city? Chances are, it started as a robbery. Furthermore, robbery is often one stage of an escalation of crime activity, as criminals become more desperate and more courageous.

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