Not all murders are the same. And the difference can often be found in the character of the victim. As the New Orleans murder rate cycles from epidemic to pandemic, Superintendent Ronal Serpas is trying to remind average, law-abiding citizens that their risk of getting murdered is very slim. He has made the decision to publish the past criminal records of the city’s homicide victims, thereby hoping to send the citizens of New Orleans a message: most of the victims of the city’s many widely publicized murders are themselves criminals.
But is this the best (read: most tactful) way of doing this? Doesn’t the insinuation that their murder was somehow their own fault smack of an affront to the families of the recently deceased at an especially vulnerable time? Perhaps. There are certainly arguments on both sides.
NOPD spokeswoman Remi Braden wrote, “I think it’s important for us to reassure locals who live by the law that they’re most likely going to be absolutely fine if they refrain from criminal activity.” David Kennedy, head of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control, also told the Times-Picayune something similar: that the majority of homicide victims have extensive criminal histories, and that’s a fact the general public needs to know. According to NOPD data, 64 percent of murder victims have been arrested for a felony. “When we act as if this fact of prior criminal activity isn’t true, we send the signal that everybody’s at risk all the time,” Kennedy said.
Serpas seems to be keen on publicizing what many of us have sensed for some time — trouble follows trouble. It is, no doubt, reassuring to understand the connection between murder and the criminal behavior of the victims of murder, and by reminding folks on a case-by-case basis that the victims of murder were themselves involved in allegedly criminal conduct can certainly accomplish this.
But perhaps Serpas has taken too tactless of an approach. Consider Corey Thompson, who was killed not far from his home in the 6th Ward because the gunman wanted retribution against Thompson’s friends. Thompson himself did almost nothing to entice the murderer. So when Thompson’s criminal record of a simple battery arrest – ultimately dismissed – was released by the NOPD and later shown on the news, Hyatta Droughn, Thompson’s aunt, was rightly concerned.
“I felt like, ‘Why would they bring that up?’ ” she told the Times-Picayune. “His only arrest happened when he was a child. And his murder had nothing to do with that.” And she has a point.
Perhaps the blunt approach of releasing criminal records is too personal – and frankly, awkward. A better approach, it seems, would be to tirelessly remind the citizens of this great city that the vast majority of murders in this city are not committed against the majority of innocent citizens, but against a small minority criminal element.
Bottom line: not all murder victims are the same, and not all murders should be publicized and reported as if a random act of violence has been perpetrated against an innocent victim. Serpas’ heart is in the right place to ever remind the city of this, but I’m not sure he has to make it as personal as to publicize individual rap sheets in order to do it.