Mother’s Day shooting victim sends message to City Hall

“I absolutely have confidence  in our auditing strategies.” Police Chief Ronal Serpas

Perhaps the most dramatic, or at least poignant, moment at Wednesday’s meeting of the New Orleans City Council committee came not by way of the high-ranking city officials there to assess progress on the mayor’s anti-violence campaign, or the council members who pelted them with questions.

Instead it was Deborah Cotton, the freelance journalist and chronicler of New Orleans’ brass band tradition, who spoke to the council through a friend as she recuperates in an intensive care unit from the latest episode of the city’s head-shaking violence.

In a brief statement read by a friend, Linda Usdin, Cotton held back from condemning the young men who sprayed gunfire into the crowd during the Mother’s Day second line, or the city officials who have been grappling with why so many young men make similar decisions almost every day.

“I have known from the moment the shooting happened that I did not want these young men thrown to the wolves,” she said, “and that we have been given yet another opportunity to demonstrate a different way of treating our humanity.”

In a question that seemed directed as much to the city as a whole as to City Hall, she asked: “Do you know what it takes to be so disconnected in your heart that you can walk out into a gathering of hundreds of people who look just like you and begin firing?

“They have been separated from us through so much trauma,” Cotton said, “Now where do we go?”

In the meantime, a group of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s top lieutenants told the council’s Criminal Justice Committee that they see progress as they work to implement the various programs and initiatives that make up the mayor’s “NOLA for Life” campaign, a now year-old strategy for reining in the city’s intractable murder rate.

The Times-Picayune reported Wednesday that the rate of murders and shootings has actually increased slightly in the section of Central City where city officials first implemented CeaseFire, a centerpiece of the NOLA for Life strategy.

Data provided by the Landrieu administration show that there were 23 shootings or killings in CeaseFire’s target area from September through March, compared with 13 during the same six-month period a year earlier.

But Police Chief Ronal Serpas pointed to more encouraging signs, telling the council Wednesday that the number of murders citywide year-to-date have dropped 15 percent compared with the same period last year, with violent crime overall down 13 percent.

He credited a “steady increase” in the flow of information coming through the Crimestoppers tip line, cooperation with the U.S. Marshals Service and his department’s “group violence reduction strategy” aimed at dismantling gangs.

Serpas said the intelligence coming from his officers — the “chatter on the street, if you will” — suggests that gang members are becoming more aware of the city’s strategy and more averse to using guns as a result.

Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee, didn’t challenge Serpas on the general trend, sticking mainly to questions about how much money the administration is pumping into various programs and where it’s coming from.

But she did bring up a recent article in The Times-Picayune that raised questions about the city’s crime statistics, pointing out the surprisingly small number of reported violent crimes given the city’s sky-high murder rate.

In interviews with the newspaper, criminologists said the apparent disconnect could mean that something is off in the way that police record crimes such as aggravated assault.

Guidry said, “I think we as a city can’t believe that our criminals are the best marksmen,” but Serpas dismissed any concerns about the accuracy of his department’s statistics.

“That 1,500 or 1,600-word article — that was whatever it was,” he said, telling council members that the department has looked at more than 11,000 police officer actions since the summer of 2010 “to ensure that they’re doing the right thing.”

“I absolutely have confidence in our auditing strategies,” he said, adding that he welcomed Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s coming investigation into the department’s numbers.