Note: we received a message from the police on New Year's Eve at approximately 2:30 pm local time -the day after the story came out.
Posted by Billy Sothern, Guest Columnist, The Times-Picayune
December 29, 2008 6:32PM
I read recently that New Orleans was named America's most crime-ridden city, no shock to anyone who reads the paper or to me as a criminal defense lawyer in this town. Like many New Orleanians, I have lost friends to violence and have witnessed extraordinarily violent crimes on our city's streets. So I was not altogether surprised when, on a recent Friday night my wife and I, along with a friend, were robbed at gunpoint and, thereby, became more statistics in New Orleans' crime wave.
At about midnight that night, I walked my wife and our friend to our car just outside a bar, beneath a bright street light on a quiet Faubourg Marigny street. As they sat in the car with the passenger-side door ajar, we talked for a moment, when, as if from nowhere, two boys appeared a couple of feet from where I stood on the sidewalk. One pulled out a small, cheap looking semi-automatic gun and said, "Empty your pockets." We gave them our money, and my wife and our friend surrendered their purses. The boys turned and ran.
The police arrived quickly, and we offered our best descriptions of the boys and the crime. While we gave our report, a man rode up on his bike and said he had just been robbed in front of his house by what sounded like the same kids. I began to realize how lucky we all were to have escaped uninjured.
The next morning, as I was calling my cell phone company to have my wife's stolen phone turned off, it occurred to me to ask the customer service person whether any calls had been made since the robbery. Indeed, only a few minutes earlier, someone had called a 504 number and had a seven-minute conversation. Thinking that any phone records could help the police investigate the holdup, I decided to leave the phone on and called the 5th District Police Department.
I told them I had been robbed the night before, explained about the phone call on my wife's stolen phone and asked to be called back as soon as possible.
Hours passed without any word, so I drove downtown to the 5th District. I was barely able to hold the attention of the police officer at the desk as I explained the evidence that I had discovered and suggested that, so long as the phone was on, maybe they could even locate the user. She took a message but again, no one called me. I called again and again over the following days and left messages for the detective assigned to the case and even called the district lieutenant when those went unanswered. As of this writing, no one has called me to follow up on the calls made from the phone or, as far as I know, made any efforts to investigate the two potentially lethal armed robberies that occurred that night.
Like many people in this town, I had to overcome real reluctance to report this crime and to try to assist in the investigation. My work in the criminal justice system has turned me into a conscientious objector to its workings -- its excessive sentences and wrongful convictions -- but I put those concerns aside because I believed that the greater injustice would be to do nothing and allow the violence that we escaped to fall on others.
Anyone who reads the news in this town has no doubt read comments from our police brass shirking responsibility and blaming us citizens when asked about the high levels of crime in our city or about unsolved crimes like the murder two years ago of my friend, Helen Hill.
The police say they cannot solve cases because we fail to cooperate and speak up. My experience gives me real reason to doubt that claim and suggests that any apathy in our communities about helping the police may be motivated more by the futility of the exercise than any lack of desire to see our streets made safer.
I know that is why I have stopped calling.
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Billy Sothern is a criminal defense lawyer and the author of "Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.