Monday, January 19, 2009

My heart goes out to the family of Wendy, the woman shot down Saturday night in the quarter.

I would like to comment about the sketches the police provided to the public. The sketches represent the hair and apparent age of the kids who robbed me, Billy and our friend. However, the two boys were about the same height- there was definitely NOT a ten inch difference between the two boys. This leads me to believe that this may not be the same duo. I distinctly remember that both of the boys were small. The kid that I dealt with directly had twists, but I did not get the sense that he was 5'10''.
A detective left me a message to contact him about a week after Billy was contacted. We called back but our call has not been returned.

Police release sketches in shooting of French Quarter bartender

by The Times-Picayune
Monday January 19, 2009, 9:13 AM

The New Orleans Police Department has released sketches of the two suspects wanted in connection to the Saturday night murder of a 39-year-old woman in the French Quarter.

More than a dozen friends and colleagues identified the victim as Wendy Burns, a bartender at French Quarter lounges Aunt Tiki's and Starlight by the Park.

• Read today's Times-Picayune story on the shooting

One suspect is 5 feet tall, police said. He has a dark complexion and has a thin build. He wore a tan hooded sweatshirt.

The other suspect is 5 feet, 10 inches tall. He has a thin build, dark complexion and short dreadlocks. He wore a lime green jacket with bright orange lining, police said.

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Victims of crime feel disconnect from NOPD
Independent police monitor will take several months to establish, field complaints

by Richard A. Webster, for City Business

On Dec. 8, Billy Sothern and his wife, Nikki Page, were robbed at gunpoint by “two boys” outside a Faubourg Marigny bar. The police arrived on the scene in short time but their total lack of cooperation with the investigation left Sothern frustrated.

The morning after the robbery, Sothern discovered through his phone company that the robbers had used his cell phone to make several local calls. Believing the information could be useful in catching the suspects, Sothern called the 5th District police station and requested that a detective call back as soon as possible.

No one called back.

So Sothern went to the 5th District in person. He was told to leave a message and someone would get back to him.

No one got back to him.

In the days that followed, Sothern called several times a day leaving messages for the detective in charge of his case and the district lieutenant. But like the other messages, these too went unanswered.

Finally, after three weeks of being ignored by the police, Sothern wrote an opinion column in the Times-Picayune and released all of his frustration, calling the New Orleans Police Department to task for accusing the public of not cooperating with investigations when he couldn’t get the police to return one of his dozens of messages — even though he had evidence in hand that could lead to an arrest.

The day after Sothern’s column was published a detective called to inquire about his case and express regret that he had been ignored for so long.

Sothern, a criminal defense lawyer and published author, said he was able to shine a spotlight on his situation and hold the police up to public scrutiny through his media connections. But what about the hundreds of people with similar stories, low-income people who deal with crime and the police on a daily basis but don’t have the resources to publish their own columns?

“There’s no vessel for them to articulate their problems,” Sothern said. “I suspect there are a huge number of instances of negligence and misconduct that are totally under the radar because the people this is happening to don’t have a voice and are easily ignored by the police.”

At a time when New Orleans has been labeled both the crime and murder capital of the nation, a strong relationship between the public and police has never been more vital. But there seems to be an ever-widening chasm.

Trust runs low

From Uptown to the Lower 9th Ward trust in the NOPD is at an all-time low, said the Rev. Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola University and chairman of the New Orleans Ethics Review Board.

“The middle and upper class don’t feel they’re protected enough and the poor folk have a concern that they’ll be victimized by the police,” Wildes said. “When I grew up in New Jersey, people had great trust in the police, something that’s almost non-existent here.”

The first step toward rebuilding the public’s faith in the NOPD is creating the independent police monitor, he said. People need an agency they can trust to field complaints, investigate police conduct and enforce accountability.

But the police monitor is only in the initial planning stages and will take at least several more months before it is ready to go, said Inspector General Robert Cerasoli, who will oversee the new agency.

Even after the police monitor is operational, its impact on the NOPD may not be felt for months or even years, leaving the public searching for more immediate solutions.

On Jan. 9, the citizen watchdog group Silence is Violence held a daylong series of anti-crime events meant to highlight the public’s growing frustration with the never-ending cycle of violence. The event coincided with the two-year anniversary of the 2007 anti-crime march on City Hall.

At that time, despite the rash of high-profile murders, people were more forgiving of the police, said Ken Foster, co-founder of Silence is Violence.

The NOPD was still in recovery mode having suffered significant personnel and infrastructure losses after Katrina. But after two years and few signs of progress, the public’s patience has worn thin, and the post-storm excuses no longer cut it, Foster said. The NOPD has failed to implement long-promised reforms such as community policing that are designed to improve its relations with the public, he said.

“Community policing is supposed to mean more interaction between police officers and the community, more officers walking the beat. That would have been the easiest thing to implement but it hasn’t happened,” Foster said. “Nobody sees anybody walking the beat in any neighborhood. I feel like when the police department talks about community policing, they’re saying we need to police ourselves without their help.”

That’s the message attorney Rachel Meese got from police after her Carrollton home was recently burglarized. It took the NOPD more than four hours to respond after her elderly neighbor first called to report a robbery in progress, Meese said.

When police finally arrived, Meese said they laid the blame of the robbery at her feet, accusing her of leaving her doors unlocked.

It’s been more than three weeks since the incident and no one from the NOPD has followed-up with her.

“They didn’t seem very interested in protecting me from criminals. That didn’t seem very high on their list of priorities,” Meese said. “So we went out and got an alarm system. It makes you feel like you’re on your own, that if it happens don’t bother calling the police because they’re not going to show up. And if they do, they’re going to treat you as if you’re responsible in some way instead of treating you like what you are, a victim of a crime.”

The NOPD declined to comment for this story.

Leadership lacking

Foster said when he recently called the police to report drug dealing in progress right outside of his house, the dispatcher told him to call Crimestoppers, a citizen-run nonprofit tip line

“I hear a lot of people who say the police don’t come in a timely fashion even when they call about crimes in progress like a burglary. I think the NOPD needs new leadership, but I don’t know when or how that’s going to happen,” Foster said.

As time goes on, more and more people are pointing their finger at Superintendent Warren Riley, said Brian Denzer, founder of the Web site, Citizen Crime Watch. They don’t accuse him of being incompetent or corrupt, as many labeled former District Attorney Eddie Jordan. But they say under his watch, public safety has not improved and the relationship between the police and the community has deteriorated.

“I think most people would agree that New Orleans was a safer place after Richard Pennington was police chief,” Denzer said. “But it’s gone downhill since then and I have serious concerns. Not to disparage police officers, 99 percent are really good guys who work really hard and don’t get paid enough, who deal with a lot of crap both on street and from the police department.

“But I’m concerned there may be public integrity issues that aren’t being addressed. Either because people aren’t being rewarded for good behavior or because there is no command control.”

Problem policy

Bob Stellingworth, president of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, said many of the trust issues between the police and the public stem from long-standing policies.

Historically, the NOPD has arrested an unusually high number of people for relatively minor crimes compared to other cities, and that has engendered resentment in many communities, Stellingworth said. And once arrested, people were often held in prison for up to 60 days without even being charged with a crime.

“There are a lot of reasons why the public should be dissatisfied,” Stellingworth said. “You have a high volume of arrests combined with an inefficient justice system and that feeds the feeling of discontent.”

But some improvements are being made.

The New Orleans criminal justice system is working on preventing people from sitting in jail without being charged, Stellingworth said. And last year the numbers of murders dropped to 179 from 210 in 2007.

“No doubt mistakes have been made and I think the police department has been under very close scrutiny by the media related to specific events and issues,” he said. “I think that goes with the territory. That’s something the police department has to put up with and react to. And when they make a mistake, they have to admit it, move forward and not make that mistake again.”

Absence telling

Part of the problem is that the NOPD appears to be completely tone-deaf to the public, Foster said. When Silence is Violence organized outside City Hall Jan. 9 to read off the names of the 580 people murdered in the city since the storm, District Attorney Leon Cannizaro and City Councilmen Arnie Fielkow and James Carter made appearances, but no one represented the NOPD.

“I know some people in the department who when they watched the news and saw there was no one there representing the police, they were completely shocked at how stupid that was,” Foster said. “It might have been a superficial gesture, but to not have anyone there came off as arrogant and disrespectful to the families of the victims.”•