Gulf Watch: Concerns grow over expanded police powers in New Orleans

The New Orleans Times-Picayune has launched a public blog allowing readers to weigh in on the worsening city's crime problem, which led to yesterday's anti-violence protest marches that drew about 3,000 people and put Mayor Ray Nagin and other city officials on the hotseat.

A warning: The blog can be painful to read, with people's anger occasionally boiling over into hateful, racist posts. But there's also some thoughtful and informative writing there that makes it worth the effort.

Reading over the posts today, I was struck by one from Roberto Calderra, a New Orleans resident who writes about three disturbing encounters with police he experienced this week. One involved a checkpoint -- part of Nagin's latest crime-fighting strategy -- at which he counted 18 police cars plus a paddy wagon. Disturbed by what he perceived as overkill, he called it "bull" and accused the police of trying to drive people out of New Orleans.

For that, Calderra received a citation, though for what he's not sure. He writes:

New Orleans has a police problem. In one of the most historically corrupt police departments, it is a MISTAKE to give these jackbooted thugs more power. These are the same police that murdered Delgado College student Jenard Thomas in the ninth ward less than a year before Katrina. It's no wonder regular people in many neighborhoods hate the cops. Random checkpoints and issuing more traffic citations -- even issuing more DUI and simple drug possession charges -- will not address the systemic problems that cause violent crime in our city. If anything it will just create more fear among the populace -- fear each other and fear of the police.

Louisiana already has a higher incarceration rate that China under Mao. As of 2005, Atlanta has 354 police per 100,000 residents. Boston had 367, Oakland had 176. ***New Orleans already has 608 police per 100,000 residents***

(Click here for more on the Thomas killing.)

Calderra's not the only one with concerns about the impact on civil liberties of expanding New Orleans police powers. The ACLU of Louisiana this week issued a statement urging city officials to embrace common-sense alternatives to failed get-tough-on-crime approaches, including random checkpoints:

The ACLU strongly opposes the automobile checkpoints as announced by Mayor Nagin and Chief Riley at yesterday's press conference. Police will just waste valuable time on a fishing expedition, instead of using credible leads to pursue known bad actors. Checkpoints to gather general evidence of criminal wrongdoing have been declared unconstitutional. Innocent people should not have to suffer even more with the loss of their right to travel freely.

The organization also blasts some aspects of the crime-fighting proposal from U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), including provisions that would have FEMA violate federal privacy law by giving police identifying information on aid recipients, and the installation of surveillance cameras in public places:

No objective data exists to support the use of video surveillance by police in public places to prevent or solve crimes. In London, where 150,000 cameras were installed to reduce crime, certain incidents of violent crime actually rose after the network was installed. In-studio staff, however, were found to engage in violations of civil liberties: They focused almost exclusively on people of color, gays and young people, along with monitoring public meetings, marches and demonstrations. Instead of cameras, use the money on fundamental reforms proposed below to lower the crime rate.

Instead, the ACLU offers its own five-point plan to address the violence in New Orleans:

1. Invest in real crime prevention. Young men 15 to 29 years old commit most of the alarming street crime in New Orleans and across the nation. The key to crime prevention lies in strong families and communities -- jobs with a livable wage, decent housing and neighborhoods, quality schools for everyone -- not more prisons.

2. Move forward with staffing and funding the office of the Independent Monitor for the NOPD to hold the police accountable to the people who pay their salaries. People will not cooperate with police officers that they do not trust or respect.

3. Expand non-prison sanctions for non-violent offenders -- tickets instead of jail for minor offenses; wider use of release on personal recognizance, home detention, restitution, etc. Save costly prison space for those who should be removed from society. Cease wasting taxpayer money on wasteful incarceration in Louisiana's state and local jails that already cost taxpayers close to one billion dollars a year.

4. Treat non-violent drug abuse and small quantity possession as a public health issue, not a crime problem. Nearly two-thirds of today's prisoners are non-violent drug abusers. They need treatment, not a jail or prison cell.

5. Stop enacting or considering ineffective "anti-crime" laws or policies like check points, surveillance cameras, and release of FEMA lists to law enforcement that reduce our freedoms -- but not our crime rate. Many police, prosecutors and corrections officials agree that constitutional rights do not hinder effective law enforcement.