Contemplating Crime

January 1, 1997

Nick Marinello

It was a harsh ending to the year, and the steady diet of news about crime and violence had penetrated the city's psyche. While the Tulane campus remains free of violent crime, observers at Tulane believe that crime is an urban issue that does not exclude any element of society.

"Tulane has a presence on this issue," said Carole Dahlem, assistant director for public safety in charge of crime prevention and victim resources. "We have a presence as victims and, I like to think, as an institution doing something about crime, too."

There were more than two dozen off-campus armed robberies reported by students, faculty and staff during the fall semester, according to Dahlem. Because every crime has "secondary victims," people who identify with the victim's experience, the actual number of persons who are victimized by a crime may be larger than the data might suggest. "We are reaching a critical mass of victimization and a critical mass of secondary victimization," said Dahlem, who believes there was widespread secondary victimization resulting from a rash of violence that swept across the city late last year.

During one week in late November and early December, the city experienced 13 murders, including the high-profile killings of an advertising executive and three employees of a French Quarter restaurant. "People have to understand," said Dahlem, "that it is not the police, not Mayor Morial, not [Councilwoman] Suzanne Terrell, not campus police that they need to rely on. It is the community members themselves taking up the issue of crime."

To that end Dahlem was heartened to see citizens marching on City Hall and jamming the chambers of the City Council during a special meeting on crime. But the showing of civic activism was not without bitter and sometimes racially divisive rhetoric, and while, at least for the time being, there is a dialogue about crime among New Orleanians, that dialogue can be complex and charged with different levels of meaning.

"There is obviously a racial dynamic that I find distasteful," said James Wright, professor of sociology and director of the Tulane-Xavier Campus Affiliates Program (CAP), a Department of Housing and Urban Development-sponsored initiative to involve universities with problems within public housing developments [see the September 1996 issue of Inside Tulane]. "I don't believe this particular tragedy [at the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen] is any more tragic than several hundred other murders that have occurred in the city this year and have not stimulated the same kind of outcry."

Ron Mason, senior vice president and general counsel, agrees. "I find it interesting, frankly," said Mason, "that there have been people dying in our poor neighborhoods in large numbers for a very long time, yet nobody wanted to call in the national guard or state police." As someone who has spent the last 15 years trying to involve members of the campus community in the issue of crime, Dahlem will accept the public's current interest in the issue, warts and all.

Yet, ultimately, she says, people need to get beyond race. "Before we can really work on the crime issue," she said, "we have to give up finger pointing and admit that crime affects the whole community, whether you are white or black." Mason believes crime is not a racial issue at all, but mainly an economic one. "Crime is a symptom; it is not the illness," said Mason. "When you live in the poorest city of its size in the country it is no surprise you are going to have a high level of crime."

For the last year Mason has worked with some of the poorest members of the New Orleans community as the HUD-appointed executive monitor of the Housing Authority of New Orleans, lending his management skills to upgrade public housing facilities. Among the many myths about crime, says Mason, is that the victims of murder are often guilty of something. "If you are poor and live in a bad neighborhood then many people believe you have done something wrong. My first-hand observation is that most people in public housing are good people caught in bad circumstances. I don't presume any guilt because someone is killed."

Compounding the misconceptions about crime are subtle distortions in the news media, said Suzanne England, dean of social work. "Our media is stirring the pot all the time about terrible crimes but prints and airs little to counter it," she said, adding that the School of Social Work will soon conduct research to "analyze messages about poverty, race and gender" and learn how to use the media to give a more comprehensive presentation of these issues.

"There are isolated incidents of bad things happening," said Mason, "but in a larger sense there is a lot more good going on in New Orleans now than there has been in years. I think the city government is better; I think the police force is better. I also think that university involvement in solving the city's problem is much better." "There are 360 perspectives on crime," agrees Dahlem.

"We can have a conversation that leaves us in resignation and despair, and that is dangerous because it means we don't have to do anything. But that is only one perspective. The important thing [in the news about the French Quarter murders and other recent crimes] is that the perpetrators were caught. And we need to make police heroes, because they are, for catching them."

This message of an effective police presence, said Dahlem, is a factor in a safe community. Yet Dahlem admits the solution to the local and national crime problem requires more than simply good police work. "There is no one answer, and for the members of the community to really get behind dropping the crime rate they will have to educate themselves," said Dahlem. She ticks off a list of factors that could provide for safer streets: education on crime issues, access to current crime information, a community tracking system from arrest to sentencing of violent offenders, programs for young people and supporting legislation for responsible gun ownership.

It will also take money, said Wright. "It is obvious what we need to do. We are 300 to 400 police officers below what we need for this city." The shortfalls in the New Orleans Police Department budget as well as the budgets for public education and recreation are chronic and very, very hard to fix, said Wright. "Other cities have figured out how to tax themselves for essential services, and this city and state never have," he explained. "I have come to the conclusion they never will. There are things worth saving besides money, and people are way up there on my list."

Mason agrees that poor funding for police is a key problem but thinks that it is dangerous to peruse the city's budget to piece together additional funds. "Crime is an emotional issue that makes people argue to put whatever money you can find from wherever you can find it into the police budget," said Mason. "But if you take it out of those other places, are you just compounding the problems for the future?" Yet Mason remains guardedly optimistic. "One of the strengths about New Orleans is that we find ways to work together to get things done. This finger pointing during the last series of tragedies is unfortunate, but I think we will work our way through that."

England, who lived in Chicago before coming to Tulane in 1994, says she feels safer living in New Orleans. "I think the intimacy of the neighborhoods is an advantage," she said. "There are old people and young people in my neighborhood and we live six feet away from each other, literally. There is a tradition of civility here and a tremendous warmth and trust, if we can hold on to that."

"New Orleans is ahead of the game because we are all mixed up here like a gumbo and have so many opportunities to interact," said Dahlem. "That isn't the case in Boston or Atlanta were groups are segregated." Wright, who came to New Orleans in 1988 from Amherst, Mass., said he, without question, prefers living here. "It has culture, food, neighborhoods, music and people," said Wright. "It has a pulse. It also has a hard and violent edge."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000