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AMERICAN ALBUM

Police now the usual suspects in New Orleans : Officers have been tied to killings, including serial slayings. Yet the department has helped slash the murder rate.

September 07, 1995|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — There's some good news and some bad news about this city's beleaguered Police Department, which has become better known for committing crime than for fighting it.

The good news is that last year's record homicide rate has begun to plunge, perhaps enough for the Big Easy to shed its dubious distinction as the nation's murder capital. After an all-time high of 421 killings in 1994, homicides dropped 18% in the first six months of 1995.

The most dramatic improvement has taken place in the city's three bloodiest housing projects, where New Orleans police switched to foot patrols and adopted a community-oriented strategy at the beginning of this year. Since then, just four murders have been reported in those complexes, contrasted with 52 in all of last year.

"This is the highlight of my career," said Lt. Edwin Compass III, a 17-year veteran who heads the team of officers assigned to the Florida, Desire and B.W. Cooper projects. "I had been depressed. My morale was real low. Now my battery is recharged."

Then there's the bad news, which, befitting the the NOPD, is pretty bad. First, authorities announced last month that a serial killer was believed to have slain 24 people, mostly prostitutes and drug users. Then, dropping the bombshell, they named a New Orleans officer as a suspect.

In a delicate bit of semantics, authorities have identified the officer as a suspect in only two of the slayings, even though both are attributed to a serial killer. One of the victims, a 28-year-old coin changer named Sharon Robinson, was the girlfriend of Officer Victor Gant, who was reportedly spotted leaving Harrah's Casino with her shortly before her death. Her body and that of a friend were found April 30 floating in a swamp.

Gant, a 15-year veteran, has denied any wrongdoing. Although he has submitted blood and tissue samples to detectives, he has not been charged and remains on duty, reassigned to a desk job. His attorney, John Reed, said the cautiously couched accusations indicate that investigators have no evidence.

"If they had any clear reason to believe Victor Gant is involved, they would arrest him," Reed said.

Since 1992, more than 30 of New Orleans' 1,500 police officers have been arrested. In just the last year, four have been charged with murder, including an officer who allegedly ordered the execution of a woman who accused him of misconduct. Despite giving high marks to the city's reform-minded mayor and police chief, both of whom took office in 1994, critics say it will take years to uncover all of the department's skeletons.

"Just when you think you've heard the worst, something comes up to top it," said Mary Howell, a New Orleans civil rights attorney who has made a career of defending the victims of police misconduct.

The FBI, which is now heading the serial-killer investigation, has declined to disclose what evidence links the 24 slayings. All but five of the victims were women, almost all of them black. Most were strangled or suffocated. They began disappearing in 1991, abducted from the Algiers and Treme neighborhoods, then dumped in the mossy bayous and canals on the outskirts of town.

Although New Orleans police suspected there might be a connection between some killings as early as 1992, the FBI task force wasn't formed until last May. The investigation has been hampered by the decomposition of the bodies, some of which have yet to be identified. But there is also a widespread perception that the official response, at least initially, was sluggish--if only because the victims hailed from the city's underside.

"It was like the Police Department went into denial," said Tony Radosti, assistant managing director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a civic watchdog.

The same can no longer be said for the impoverished Florida housing project, where 26 people were killed last year, one murder for every 100 residents. So far this year, there has been only one murder within the complex, a welcome statistic that nobody here takes for granted.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the grim cluster of graffiti-scarred barracks was abuzz with frolicking children. Some were splashing in a small pool, others were shooting hoops in an old milk-carton crate nailed to a plywood board.

"Look at these kids! It just makes you feel so good!" said Compass as he exchanged high-fives with a group of youngsters.

"Before, I wouldn't have been out here more than five minutes without running back in for cover," explained one middle-aged woman sitting on the stoop outside her apartment.

It is the Police Department, more than anything, that has changed. In the past, officers ventured into the Florida project only when there was an emergency call. Now there are 45 officers permanently assigned to Florida and the two other developments, where they walk foot patrols, attend church services, join in football games and hand out ice cream cones.

"We were dealing with people who had more or less lost faith in law enforcement," said Compass, who, like the officers under his command, volunteered for the 12-hour shifts. "Now we spend half of our lives here. These people are our neighbors; they're our friends."

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