Joseph Massenburg was 18, so we can say he was a man. But he was a kid, too, a teenager just out of high school.
Massenburg, the son of Chicago church ministers, was gunned down one night last week a few blocks off South Carrollton Avenue. He had been in New Orleans only two weeks, doing a volunteer stint here with AmeriCorps before he was going to head off to the Army.
Meanwhile, in the halls of city government, the criminal justice system — which is supposed to protect us from such crimes by bringing miscreants to account for their deeds — is in serious disarray. Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman are in a virtual all-out war.
Landrieu has called for the federal government to elbow Gusman aside and take over the operation of Orleans Parish Prison. In response, Gusman condemned Landrieu’s “Archie Bunker rhetoric,” which presumably is a coded accusation of racism against the mayor.
In the midst of that war, the most-damaging volley launched against Gusman was an old video of OPP inmates shooting heroin, drinking beer, gambling and brandishing a gun. I don’t think most people would be shocked — shocked! — to find out there’s gambling going on inside a prison. Or sex, drugs or violence. After all, such things are the stuff of prison lore.
But the presence of canned beer, needles for shooting heroin and, most shockingly, a loaded gun is something else. This isn’t a case of the fabled metal file baked into a cake. If whatever security system OPP uses to screen what gets into prison can’t detect needles, beer cans and guns, then you have to wonder exactly what it can detect.
The problems at OPP are weighing on a court-ordered consent decree to clean up the New Orleans Police Department. Landrieu has complained that the city can’t bear the cost of the decree’s reform of NOPD, estimated at $11 million a year, as well as the cost of reforming the Sheriff’s Office, possibly as high as $22 million a year. Hence, he wants the feds to put the Sheriff’s Office into receivership and take over the jail. A court ultimately will decide the issue.
Elsewhere, while the Landrieu-Gusman fight raged last week, seven senior NOPD officers complained that they are the victims of age discrimination and that the city’s crime-fighting effort is being handicapped as a result. The seven officers, former district commanders and deputy chiefs among them, said they have been reduced to menial tasks while their vast experience instead could be used to help bring crime under control. The officers have complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The mess in the criminal justice system isn’t the cause of our crime problems, of course. Massenburg, unfortunately, is not the first young victim claimed by violence in this city. Even toddlers have fallen prey to gunfire.
But last week’s exchange can’t help but embolden those who commit crimes to think they can do so without ever serving time (or that, if they do serve time, at least there will be a cold brew, a hot craps game and a shot of heroin waiting for them on the other side of the bars).
As long as that continues, we can be sure there will be more Joseph Massenburgs in our future, good people who happen to walk into the wrong place at the wrong time and pay the price for doing so.
Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is email@example.com.