Zero tolerance, by any name, draws mixed response in La.

New Orleans halves its homicide rate

critics see abuses by police

October 24, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

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.

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