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The Fine Line Between Protecting Safety And Rights


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, he's bringing new flavors from Latin America to places like Philadelphia, Atlantic City and Washington, D.C. We'll talk Nuevo Latino cuisine with the award-winning chef, Guillermo Pernot. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to continue our conversation with the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu. We're talking about his administration's efforts to stop the killing in his city. Per capita, New Orleans has the highest murder rate in the country.

One of the things that is associated with New York is the stop and frisk policy, where police are aggressive about stopping people and frisking them on what is described as a reasonable suspicion that they may have a weapon and, you know, the ACLU, among other organizations, have looked at that and have said that this is, in some ways, causing more harm than good because the level of anger that a lot of young African-American men in particular have about this is at a level where they kind of really wonder whether it's socially as productive, even if there are results, apparently, you know, on the other side.

And I just wondered what your thoughts are about that.

MAYOR MITCH LANDRIEU: Well, first of all, I've met with Commissioner Kelly a number of times. I think they run a really tight ship in New York. Their stop and frisk policy is probably as aggressive as there is in the country. Having said that, I think that there are people that would argue that that's not necessarily the thing that has reduced the murder rate, although it may have contributed to it. And, of course, the challenge is how do you make sure that you are not violating people's constitutional rights, where the police department is actually a police department that's protecting and serving, as opposed to just harassing.

And there's always a fine line between those two things. I mean, we're aware of the controversy in New York and we're not acting off of that or in contradistinction to it. But one of the things we're trying to do here is make sure that, when we stop, we have reasonable justification for doing so.

And as importantly, instead of just being aggressive about stops, making sure that we have police officers that we're pushing into the communities back into, you know, the day when we had neighborhood policing or community policing so people actually feel comfortable with them.

We hope that when that trust is rebuilt that we actually will have the neighbors helping us identify who the individuals are in the neighborhoods that are making them feel, you know, very unsafe. And that's the thing that's going to matter the most.

MARTIN: Just to clarify, for people who aren't sure what you're talking about - that there have been a number of steps that are being taken to restore confidence in the department in the wake of questions about the behavior of police officers' excessive force and other issues and so...

LANDRIEU: Well, you said it very nicely, but I'll try to say it more directly. We have had challenges in our police department, which has, over the past eight to 10 years, lost its way and did not recruit well, didn't train well. Most of the men and women on NOPD are excellent at what they do, but there are a number of individuals that did not, and it's caused people some concern. So we've invited the Department of Justice to work with us. We're in the middle of negotiating a consent decree and some very aggressive negotiations.

But the point is, to find common ground on making sure that we rebuild the police department, that is number one, hired well, trained very well. Actually gets into the neighborhoods and knows the individuals and partners with the community to make sure that they have a safe neighborhood.

Most experts in the country know that you can't arrest your way out of the problem. You've got to deal with what's in front of you today, but you've got to stop it from happening, which means you've got to get in early, and this is the public health side of it.

So early childhood education, wraparound services, mental health, recreation services, having strong families who take responsibility for raising their children are all ways to kind of - to give kids a much better chance and a much better opportunity and much better choices.

And then, if they choose a bad path, then they have to be, you know, direct and clear and measurable consequences to what they do in order to modify the culture that exists right now.

One of the saddest parts of my day is getting an email saying: Mr. Mayor, we're sorry to inform you that, at 2:30 last night, we got a call. We arrived at the scene. A young black man is lying on the street, face down. There's a bullet hole to his head. Stop, pause, there are no witnesses. And that same story recurs every day across America with most mayors all over the place and what we're saying is, you know, enough is enough.

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, before we let you go, I have to ask about guns. I mean, having covered this issue a number of times in a number of places, as you pointed out, you know, we talked to a lot of mayors and city leaders and involved people across the country and sometimes people bring this up. Sometimes, they don't.

But every time we cover the story, somebody says what about the guns? The availability of guns, the easy availability of guns - is that not to be discussed?

LANDRIEU: No. Well, first of all, you know, the NRA has done a great job of having a chilling effect on discussing reasonable restrictions on how to handle guns when - I support the Second Amendment, as do most other people in America. And so it gets very difficult, given the restrictions that are in federal law and in state law on having local laws that are more restrictive than the ones that currently exist. That's number one.

Number two, it is also true that notwithstanding the fact that some guns may be available, people are choosing to use them in the wrong way. The third piece is there's a huge and aggressive push that we all, I would hope, could come together on, on the restrictions of the use of illegal weapons - our felons in possession of firearms. If we could just come to common ground on that issue, we wouldn't really have to get into a Second Amendment fight.

And so, I think that's something that the nation ought to think about. Unfortunately, the Second Amendment is one of those sacrosanct issues that you can't hardly even talk about reasonably anymore.

In my view, the Constitution is a very important document. Every constitutional right, the founding fathers balanced off with reasonable limitations. We ought to at least be able to talk about what those reasonable limitations are while we protect people's rights. What are the restrictions when people use them or misuse them in an inappropriate way? And I think that issue ought to be on the table.

MARTIN: Finally, Mr. Mayor, I read the whole speech and looping back to something you talked about earlier, you called the names. You called the names of some of the young people who have been killed in this violence that you're talking about and I also noted one line in your speech, which you said, as every parent knows, you are only as happy as your saddest child. How happy are you right now? How are you?

LANDRIEU: Well, here's the point that I'm trying to make. New Orleans is a wonderful city. Everybody in the world knows that. We have awesome things going on here. I think the transformational change that the city has made - post-September 11th, post-Katrina, Rita, Ike, Gustav, the national recession, the BP oil spill - has been nothing less than miraculous, and we should feel good about that. And that's important to be able to stop for a second and to just take a moment and be thankful for the blessings that we have for being as resilient as we are and for the help that everybody's given us and for the hard work that we've done.

And New Orleans has a great and beautiful future. However, while you say that, you have to then acknowledge not only the great things that you have in your challenges, but also the very difficult things that you have that, in the long term, will hold you back from reaching the great potential or really just being able to realize the God-given talents and gifts you've been given. And one of them is the violent - you know, the way young men are treating themselves on the streets of New Orleans, and it is very, very sad because these are not just statistics for us. These are names.

And so, again, you know, my heart goes out to Trayvon Martin's parents. It is worth noting that the nation stopped for a moment when that injustice occurred and people stood up and they spoke about injustice. But I do recognize that subsequent to that time, a number of young African-American men who look a lot like Trayvon killed and were killed on the streets of New Orleans and nobody knows their names. And so I spoke their names to personify who, in fact, they were. And I ask the nation again, what is it that we get upset about? Is it the loss of life or is it the injustice?

Every life is valuable and young African-American lives are valuable and the amount of experience and talent and time that we're losing because these young men are being taken from us and taking themselves, in my mind, really changes the trajectory of the nation, and it's something that we ought to focus our attention on because, when they're hurting that bad, the nation will never be as good as she can be.

MARTIN: Mitch Landrieu is the mayor of New Orleans and he was kind enough to join us from his office. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

LANDRIEU: Great. Michel, thank you so much. I appreciate you having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.