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Conservatively liberal, moderately well-educated, and highly opinionated...

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Sunday, February 05, 2006

House-cleaning in Houston

Many Houstonians will no doubt be outraged by the Chronicle’s report about New Orleans' pre-Katrina Criminal Justice system:

The crime commission's damning report less than a week before the hurricane said that only 7 percent of those arrested were ever convicted and that 60 percent of all convictions were for misdemeanors. It also said violent offenses such as murder, rape, battery or assault made up only 5 percent of all convictions during 2003-04.

Seven percent? How is that possible?

Kim Cobb writes that killers like "B-Stupid" were enabled by criminally lax bond-setting, setting the stage for witness intimidation and murder… and that certainly is a facet of the problem. New Orleans’ stellar Times-Picayune wrote extensively on exactly that – way back in 2004:

But in New Orleans, as Turner well knew, fear of retaliation has made witnesses a wary group, a problem that repeatedly sabotages homicide prosecutions. People step forward, identify a suspect, but later refuse to cooperate. They change their stories, accuse detectives of coercion and skip court dates. With nothing left to build a case on, prosecutors drop charges, and suspects, many with violent pasts, hit the streets again.

In many other cases, police remain empty-handed because no one comes forward at all. In at least two cases last year, witnesses who came forward were shot dead.

For Houston, these systemic failures are important to understand. Yes, the New Orleans Police Department has an appalling reputation, but there’s an important issue consistently overlooked by citizens and watchdog groups: the NOPD has been laboring under totally impossible conditions for decades. The police and the citizens they were sworn to protect were caught in a vicious, closed loop from which no-one had any hope of emerging… before Katrina. In September, I wrote:

This is a violent sub-culture gone mad, and the real tragedy for those who are poor, and trapped economically, was merely compounded by Katrina. The families, elderly, and children in these neighborhoods were already living a nightmare.

Houston’s forums and blogs have been peppered with comments about New Orleanians – ridiculously short-sighted statements like “send them all back”, or “maybe we can put them in the New Orleans jails”.

Houstonians need to get off the smug self-deception that this city was some kind of crime-free Nirvana before our influx of people. It wasn’t. Houston already had neighborhoods over-run by gangs and drugs - the same areas to which the New Orleans criminals thronged. Why? Because they fit right in there. Furthermore, finger-pointing is (as ever) a waste of time, because this is Houston's problem now. Heads in sand don't solve anything.

Down the line one day when a major disaster strikes Houston (and it will), one hopes that this city’s evacuees will not strike fear into the communities that give them shelter. It’s time to clean house, folks.