New Orleans The headline may have said that Iran sent twenty missiles at two Iraqi bases where US troops and materials were stationed, but the picture in my local paper was equally disturbing. It showed New Orleans police officers armed to the gills with machine guns, armored vests, and helmets were seen with police dogs swarming around a pink house under a bold headline claiming, “LAKEVIEW LOCKDOWN.”
Please understand that the Lakeview neighborhood is not your typical New Orleans neighborhood in a city that is two-thirds African-American. It is not the gated and stately uptown of old money, but the largely white, solidly upper-middle class of families and professionals, safely ensconced near Lake Ponchartrain. Flooded after the levee on the 17th street canal failed during Hurricane Katrina, Lakeview had been the neighborhood that led the recovery because its families had the financial resources, while other areas lagged behind while forced to wait for federal funds and insurance payments, often deliberately slow.
What in the world was happening? Was Lakeview under assault? Had the Iranians come after Lakeview? Were serial killers loose on the streets?
No, there was an attempted car break-in. Really, a car break-in?
No, not really it turns out there were some teens testing car doors to see if they were unlocked close to 9 am in the morning. A New Orleans plainclothes detective saw a suspicious car they were riding and “opened fire,” claiming the car had backed up towards him. Got this? A cop without a uniform opened fire on a suspicious car over some aspiring car burglars. The teens ran for it, and “a radio call saying an officer was in danger sent dozens of police cars speeding into Lakeview, lights flashing, to block off streets and begin a search that went on for hours.” Despite the breathless coverage of the incident, the reporter couldn’t help allowing the sense of overkill to seep into his reporting that “The massive response to a car burglary, a crime that happens more than a dozen times a day across the city, closed several neighborhood blocks, put four schools on lockdown, left residents confined to their homes and eventually resulted in the arrest of a second suspect…” Buried in the article was the fact that no weapons were ever found on the suspects nor was there any report of them having fired weapons.
In the Ninth Ward, equally iconic after Hurricane Katrina because of the storm damage and the recovery which is still a long way from being complete, every day the Nextdoor app neighborhood watchers and commenters are reporting car lock jiggles, break-ins, and, let’s be frank, actual car thefts. Police wouldn’t get out of their cars or bother to stifle a yawn if they got a call reporting teens on the street, much less scramble the troops, and fire away in any of these neighborhoods. Of course, a big reason is that many would not bother to call, since we also know that the habit of the New Orleans police firing first and investigating later would more likely lead to a body count in the majority black areas of the city.
Rarely are the racially disparate police strategies for neighborhood policing so starkly obvious. I wish we could believe that there are lessons we are learning from this.