Panel of mayors looks for solutions to violence in cities

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu got a lot of mileage, and a few laughs, out of his Donna Summer “Bad Girls” riff during the 19th annual Essence Festival, but the subject matter couldn’t have been less funny: the epidemic of violence afflicting African-Americans in New Orleans and the nation at large, violence primarily committed and suffered by young black men and children.

Landrieu broke out the Donna Summer reference for the second time in three days at the Morial Convention center on Saturday, during a morning panel on reducing violence and murder in America that featured African-American Mayors Kasim Reed, of Atlanta, and William A. Bell, of Birmingham, Ala.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, deeply involved in his run for U.S. senator from New Jersey, joined the discussion by phone.

Landrieu noted that since 1980, the year after Summer’s disco hit, “Bad Girls,” was released, 611,000 Americans had been killed in the streets of America — more than the total number of Americans killed in all wars the U.S. has fought in and waged since World War I. He had raised the same jarring statistic Thursday during a panel discussion, “Saving Our Sons,” to similar agreeable effect in the audience.

Journalist Alex Wagner led the panel Saturday as the Essence Festival rolled into its third day of music and empowerment sessions. Wagner began the talk by asking the gathered mayors about background checks for gun purchases — and the failure of the U.S. Congress to enact new gun laws following the grade-school mass slaughter in Newtown, Conn., last year.

“We believe that people have a right to own a firearm,” Landrieu said, “but, like every person knows, every constitutional right is subject to reasonable restrictions, and a background check is a reasonable restriction.”

The mayors were in agreement that cities had to act where the federal government couldn’t, or wouldn’t. “Cities is where hope meets the street,” Reed said. “We need a surge in the streets.” Reed’s anticrime policies in Atlanta helped drive its annual murder rate down to 83 in 2012, the lowest death toll from violence since 1969, he said.

Reed said he had added 800 officers to his city’s Police Department since being elected mayor in 2010, but stressed that with a “surge in strength you need a surge in compassion.” He added more cops, he said, but also opened recreation centers throughout Atlanta to give young African-Americans options other than the street life. The city of Atlanta’s official website says there are 1,859 police officers on the force.

New Orleans has launched its own wide-ranging, holistic approach to murder reduction under the broad rubric of NOLA For Life. Those efforts appear to be making a dent in the chronically high New Orleans murder rate this year, even as the New Orleans police force has seen declining numbers of officers on the beat in recent years. The 2013 city budget allocated funds to support 1,260 sworn officers on the New Orleans force.

The panel kept returning to the issue of guns, and gun violence, and Landrieu noted that background checks were not the political panacea to the problem of gun violence raging through the inner-city streets of America.

Following on similar themes raised in the Thursday panel, he said that many of the murders being committed by young men and children are for petty beefs along the lines of “You stepped on my tennis shoe.”

Landrieu also noted that there are a lot of poor people, in New Orleans and elsewhere, who own guns for protection and who don’t shoot people just because they themselves happen to be poor. “There’s a lot of people out there without a job who aren’t using that as an excuse to shoot someone,” Landrieu said.

Booker, the popular Newark mayor and a rising star in the Democratic Party, said that a study he commissioned at New Jersey’s Rutgers University found that 85 percent of all murder victims in the city he represents were people who had, on average, been arrested 10 times.

The specter of the “mass incarceration” of nonviolent offenders since the era of “Bad Girls” was raised when Booker cited dramatic spikes in the number of Americans locked up as a result of nonviolent crimes since the 1970s.

“We’re data junkies here, just like Booker,” Landrieu said, and ticked off New Orleans’ own unsettling statistic on violence and murder: 85 percent of all murders involved young men 16 through 26 years of age who have dropped out of school and are “mostly without access to jobs,” Landrieu said. “And way more often than not, they’ve had significant interaction with the criminal justice system.”

The mayors all hit on the consequences of urban crime beyond the immediate tragedy to families and loved ones, and Landrieu noted that the violence epidemic raging since the year of “Bad Girls,” came with “catastrophic economic consequences” in the trillions of dollars, he said.