Mitch Landrieu, who takes office as New Orleans’s first elected post-Katrina mayor in May, is already proving to be a radical—in a good way. “The city of New Orleans is not safe,” he said in February. “When New Orleans is best known for crime, something is drastically wrong. That has to change.”
Landrieu’s calm assertion may not sound like much to someone living in a city used to competent policing. But it’s a revolution for New Orleans. The city’s long-held tolerance of poisonous violence was rooted in some combination of the following beliefs, not all of them in harmony with one another. First, crime isn’t that high; it’s a national media exaggeration, notwithstanding a per-capita murder rate that’s eight times New York’s figure. Second, crime is high, but the criminal-justice system can’t do anything about it; crime is a by-product of illiteracy and poverty. Third, crime is high, but you shouldn’t worry; if you’re not dealing drugs, you probably won’t end up dead.
But Katrina washed away these old attitudes. After the massive hurricane hit nearly five years ago, New Orleanians decamped to other cities and saw that these governments adequately protected public safety. When they returned, they decided that they were working too hard fixing up their houses and neighborhoods to let their city slip back into the old ways. New residents, too, demand some basic protections from the city in which they have invested so much. There’s a strange new sense of self-sufficient competence infusing New Orleans, and citizens are trying to hold their government to the same standard.
To meet these new expectations, Landrieu says that he’ll hire a top-notch police chief. He’s taking advice from NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly and former LAPD chief William Bratton on this front. Achieving progress on crime will also require imperviousness to opportunistic critics. New Orleans’s police and prosecutors must apply techniques such as stop-and-frisks and automatic prison sentences for illegal-weapons possession. Adopted elsewhere, these tactics have cut violence. But they’ve also attracted national race-baiters.
Landrieu, though, can keep the public on his side. Most black citizens voted for him—giving him a landslide victory—partly because they’re fed up with crime and partly because they remember the legacy of his father, Moon Landrieu, who, as mayor in the seventies, led white political support for desegregation.
The younger Landrieu can do even more for civil rights. If he cuts murder and robbery rates, he’ll save the lives of hundreds of black people over his term in office and open up economic opportunity to tens of thousands more.