Zero tolerance, by any name, draws mixed response in La.; New Orleans halves its homicide rate; critics see abuses by police


NEW ORLEANS -- Getting tough on crime in the Big Easy seems like a contradiction. Swilling beer in public is not only lawful; it's encouraged. There is no such thing as last call at the bars. And a noise complaint on Bourbon Street? Forget it.

But crime has dropped in this party town -- where police corruption is as well known as Mardi Gras -- faster than in any other city. The murder rate, the nation's highest per capita in 1994, has been cut by more than half.

Baltimore's Democratic nominee for mayor, Martin O'Malley, wants to import the same consultants -- Jack Maple and John Linder -- who helped turn New Orleans around, persuading frightened tourists to return to the land of gumbo, beignets and fried oyster sandwiches.

"We have fought to clean up what was known as the most corrupt agency in the nation," boasted police Superintendent Richard J. Pennington, hired in 1994 from Washington.

"Then we had to clean up what was the most murderous city in the nation."

New Orleans accomplished its goals in five years by using a controversial strategy -- alternately dubbed "zero tolerance" or "quality of life" enforcement -- that has many in Baltimore worried that their police department will become a brutal, occupying force.

As New Orleans has sliced the number of killings from 421 in 1994 to a projected 160 this year, some critics say the drop came at too high a price.

"Zero tolerance is an attitude that gives a license," said Mary E. Howell, an attorney who for 20 years has represented people complaining of police abuse.

At first enthusiastic about the reforms Pennington made, she sits in her small house on South Dorgenois, walking distance from the police station, helping people who feel victimized by zero tolerance policing.

She has moved from representing families of people killed by police officers to handling the cases of poor people rousted for blocking sidewalks or being drunk in public.

"Zero tolerance allows police to target a certain segment of the population under the rubric of fighting crime," Howell said.

O'Malley rode to a primary victory with tough talk on ending open-air drug markets that are plainly visible to frightened residents, who feel trapped in their neighborhoods.

But the candidate is on the defensive nine days before the general election Nov. 2, with some ministers and residents fearing that his strategy will promote abuse by a department they feel already has too much power.

A controversial police killing Oct. 7, in which a 21-year-old man was shot in the back of the head by an officer, has fueled the debate over police and crime.

O'Malley complains that his crime-fighting strategies are misunderstood and that he is unfairly characterized as supporting a renegade force. What he once called "zero tolerance," he now calls "quality of life." He warns that he will not allow inappropriate behavior by officers.

"Effective policing does not equal brutal policing," he says repeatedly.

Pressed to explain how policing would differ in his tenure, he says officers would be better trained, more personable, publicly disciplined for wrongdoing and ordered to climb from their patrol cars and tour crime-ridden streets on foot.

The candidate promises "big changes in law enforcement that won't accept neighborhoods being written off, won't accept a high murder rate and won't accept 24-7 drug dealing."

O'Malley said that minor nuisance infractions would be targeted as a way of solving more serious crimes.

He said he expects complaints against officers to rise as they confront more citizens, while contending that complaints under former Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier "declined for years while the department did nothing."

As for zero tolerance, O'Malley urges people to "just stop using the term."

His Republican opponent, David F. Tufaro, also wants to target nuisance crimes but criticizes the zero tolerance approach. He said community leaders should work closely with police on which offenses should be targeted, to help avoid conflicts.

New Orleans suffered from some of the same ills as Baltimore has. A high murder rate and New Orleans' notoriously corrupt police force scared visitors away from this port town built on a swamp.

New Orleans depends on tourists who flock to drink rum-laced Hurricanes, to dine on Cajun-spiced catfish and to walk streets lined with small Creole cottages and historic homes wrapped in wrought-iron fences. More than 3.7 million people crowd the French Quarter for Mardi Gras each year.

Crime out of hand

By 1994, corruption and crime had gotten out of hand.

A tourist was gunned down along Riverwalk, a shopping promenade that winds along the Mississippi. A police officer robbed a Vietnamese restaurant and killed her partner who was standing guard. Another officer ordered the execution of a woman who had filed a complaint against him.

Newspaper headlines in the mid-1990s told an ominous tale: "New Orleans once again murder capital of America," "Tax revenues plummet," "Tourism in tailspin" and "Economy stagnant."

By 1994, the number of tourists had dropped from a yearly average of 13 million during the previous decade to a low of 7 million.

Corporation heads formed the New Orleans Police Foundation, pumped money into law enforcement and hired the Maple-Linder team to help Pennington rebuild the department and restore confidence in the city.

The foundation's fourth "Partnership for Safer City" luncheon Oct. 14 was a semiformal affair -- held in the Grand Ballroom at the New Orleans Riverside Hilton, where a table for 10 cost $450.

Mayor Marc H. Morial showed up, along with the district attorney, City Council members and the FBI agent in charge of the New Orleans field office, who is still prosecuting police officers for misconduct.

A Marine Corps band played Dixieland music. Speaker after speaker called for a larger police department and higher pay for officers. They lauded Pennington for reducing crime in the city.

"We have cut the murder rate in half, and we did it twice as fast as New York City and with half the number of police officers per capita," Pennington told the appreciative crowd.

The foundation capitalized on fear and galvanized a city. "It is a crime not to care," the group proclaimed, as members handed out zero tolerance key chains designed as mini-handcuffs.

Though forbidden to do so, some officers on the 1,600-member force advertise the strategy by putting the foundation's zero tolerance bumper stickers on their squad cars. But Pennington disavows the "zero tolerance" term.

"We do not have a zero tolerance policy in New Orleans, and I do not want to give the officers the illusion that we do," Pennington said sternly during an interview.

But the very people pouring money into his department for the $2,000-a-day consultants, recruiting trips, officer-exchange programs to Russia and renovation of the police training academy say the strategy not only works but is enthusiastically practiced.

"I believe we have zero tolerance," said the foundation's chairman, Mel L. Lagarde III. "When criminals find themselves on the wrong side of the law, they know that police are going to take nothing but appropriate action. They are going to be put in jail. There is no second chance, no way to manipulate the system."

Police say that abuse complaints and shootings by officers are down during the past few years, while arrests for nuisance crimes are up 70 percent.

Residents of the city's sprawling public housing developments are unimpressed.

Felton White, 34, calls the new policing strategy "hammer down." He grew up in the St. Thomas projects, seemingly endless strips of three-story brick buildings on stilts between the Mississippi River and the exclusive Garden District, where novelist Anne Rice lives in a refurbished orphanage. St. Thomas, built 63 years ago, is home to 580 families, with two-thirds of the apartments empty.

"When they say zero tolerance, it's just zero tolerance for black folks," said White, who complained about repeated police stops of people walking through St. Thomas.

'Just running his name'

Bart Stapert, who runs the St. Thomas Community Law Center, said one of his clients was recently stopped outside the office by officers who searched him and ran a criminal records check.

"Oh, we're just doing a pedestrian stop," he quotes one of the officers as saying. "I asked, 'What is the reasonable suspicion?' and he answered, 'We're just running his name.' "

Stapert said, "These type of stops have been going on in communities like this for years. Now it's somewhat justified because we have a nice label for it."

Critics complain of uneven enforcement, a chief concern in Baltimore: Loiterers will be shoved against walls and searched on East Biddle Street, while they'll be left alone on Roland Avenue.

New Orleans police make no apologies. In a city built on tolerance, officials openly acknowledge that different communities have different problems.

"How in the world would you have zero tolerance in the French Quarter?" Pennington asked, noting the famed historic district of Spanish-influenced architecture, where bars stay open 24 hours and the sounds of zydeco constantly echo down Bourbon Street.

Pennington said that similar activity in the upscale Garden District wouldn't be tolerated. "We work with the community to determine what the quality-of-life issues are," he said.

The superintendent points out that public housing residents, upset that drug dealers commuted there to set up shop, wanted outsiders ousted and agreed to carry identification cards. Officers are enforcing their request, he said.

Pennington said that two-thirds of the city's murders occur in public housing developments -- areas he said officers once refused to police.

"The cops didn't want to go in there, and the residents didn't want us in there," he said.

Arriving in New Orleans on Oct. 13, 1994, a year that ended with the city topping the charts as the murder capital of the nation, Pennington also had to deal with a second major problem: corruption in the Police Department.

The day he was sworn in, the FBI secretly recorded one of his officers, Len Davis, talking about a hit he had ordered -- that was carried out -- on a woman named Kim Groves, who had filed a complaint against him.

Survival, loyalty, stoicism

Maple, a former New York City transit officer credited with revolutionizing modern policing in New York by using computers to identify crime trends, concluded that the department had an "operating culture whose instrumental values are individual survival, clan loyalty and stoicism in the face of disappointment."

A survey found that officers believed their mission, in order, was to respond to complaints, stay out of trouble, report corruption, not embarrass the brass, and protect tourists.

Pennington called his officers "gangsters, murderers and thieves." The FBI had identified a dozen officers protecting drug shipments and directing the movements of drug couriers around the city. One officer was publicly identified by the chief as a serial killer; two are on death row.

Pennington has fired more than 36 officers, accepted the resignation of 29 others and suspended 115. He takes an active role in addressing complaints; during a meeting, he quizzed his top commanders about two officers accused of being overly aggressive.

But it is on the street where the political rhetoric from police headquarters and City Hall becomes reality.

Sgt. Rodney E. Bailey runs the 6th District "shut-down squad," officers free to search out trouble pockets in a wedge-shaped patrol area with Xavier University at the tip and the Mississippi River rounding out the bottom. It includes the Garden District and two housing projects, St. Thomas and Calliope, where children play between empty building shells bordered by open sewer lines.

"We sweep the street -- zero tolerance, nuisance crimes, everything," said Bailey, a 20-year veteran who feels his department's notorious reputation is overstated. People doing something wrong, he said, "have to answer to us. Our motto: We don't negotiate."

He boasts about the number of traffic citations handed out by 6th District officers -- 1,000 a month, up from 15 just a few years ago. But he often cruises past youngsters throwing a football beyond the 8 p.m. curfew.

Zero tolerance implies that every infraction warrants police attention. But Bailey doesn't even slow down. "If this was the Garden District, the residents would expect us to take action," he said.

Seeking discretion

The discretion is what his boss, Pennington, wants -- target areas rife with crime; use restraint elsewhere.

Bailey ordered his squad to converge on the troublesome Friendly Touch Bar, a noted gathering place for thugs.

Officers rounded up 18 young men and women standing outside. They handcuffed them chain-gang style, ran their records and came up with one outstanding warrant on an unpaid traffic ticket.

"It's like fishing," Bailey said, as a crowd gathered to watch the routine spectacle played out in front of the small, ramshackle "shotgun" style homes. "We cast a big net."

Asked for probable cause for stopping the youths, officers pointed to a spray-painted sign scrawled on the outside of the tavern: "Please no loitering anytime NOPD. No weapons allowed."

One of the squad cars had the "zero tolerance" sticker on the back bumper, under the official slogan, "To protect and serve."

The 6th District commander, Capt. Michael O. Ellington, said there is "absolutely not a zero tolerance policy," but he said stepped-up attention to minor offenses has curtailed crime.

In 1994, the district had 98 murders for 52,000 residents. Last year, the number was down to 42.

What Maple brought to New Orleans was Compstat, a weekly crime meeting involving top commanders and low-level supervisors, who gather in a room, look at crime maps projected onto a wall and discuss combat strategies.

It began in New York and is used in several cities, including Baltimore. One by one, New Orleans commanders talked about clusters of shootings, truant arrests, car stops and crime patterns around vacant houses.

For one week in one district, police reported dealing with 654 abandoned cars, 22 cases of illegal dumping, seven graffiti problems, 152 traffic infractions, 12 stray dogs and 116 parking complaints.

Officers reported nine arrests, 89 citations, 114 warrants served and 268 traffic tickets. They impounded 657 cars.

New Orleans police say they no longer simply react to crime when it occurs. After a number of women had been raped in the French Quarter this month, undercover officers saturated Bourbon Street.

They watched for potential victims -- drunken women who had become separated from their group -- and approached nine during a single night. The officers warned them of the danger and questioned the men they were with. No arrests were made, but detectives built up a database of potential offenders. "We scared the hell out of a lot of people," said Lt. Bob Benelli, commander of the sexual assault unit.

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