An open letter to the citizens of New Orleans:
Everyone knows about Stockholm Syndrome. It's a psychological term that describes the behavior of kidnap victims who, over time, become sympathetic to their captors. In some cases, they even see their rescuers as the bad guys.
In almost 30 years as a newspaperman, I've seen the Stockholm Syndrome play out in unexpected places, including the halls of government. Well-meaning people who likely began their public lives as honest, devoted public servants become compliant, submissive hostages to the institutions that envelop, hide and nurture them. In their minds, the noble public slowly transmogrifies into ... the unwashed masses. "These pitchfork-wielding peasants want to harm our comfortable systems and codes," they cry, "and we cannot let that happen!"
Suddenly, the ordinary citizen -- for whom these institutions supposedly exist -- is the enemy. Every ordinary action, such as seeking a day in court, requesting guidance on zoning, or just asking for a simple public document, becomes a terroristic threat to the very people who once swore to serve ordinary citizens. God forbid that we might be forced to depend on our city leaders to actually save our lives in the event of a natural disaster.
New Orleans -- in both its pre- and post-Katrina incarnations -- might just be America's best example of corrupt, anti-citizen government. The silos have been hardened to withstand a nuclear blast of public opinion (although, as you'll learn later in this essay, apparently cannot protect simple file cabinets). Many of the dysfunctional, corrupt, lazy, petulant, unorganized, non-responsive, despotic, Third World behaviors of New Orleans public servants are detailed at this site, so I won't repeat the lengthy laundry list of misdeeds and insults New Orleans government heaps upon its people every single day.
But I will tell you an uncomplicated story about my most recent experience with New Orleans city government, especially its law enforcement agencies. Incredibly, what should have been one of the simplest and most non-threatening open-records requests ever has revealed just how entrenched New Orleans "public" servants have become against you. Maybe against the world.
I am writing a book profiling 10 survivors of mass-murder in the USA, to be published in late 2010. Each story will recap crimes and the moment when the survivor and killer crossed paths, but they will also explore how each survivor has coped with the trauma and its ripple effects over the years. One of my subjects is a retired New Orleans firefighter named Tim Ursin, who was wounded in 1973 by mass-murderer Mark Essex at New Orleans’ Howard Johnson Hotel.
Essex was a racist African-American who targeted white victims (and skipped over blacks) during a famous day-long siege at the downtown hotel in January 1973. He slaughtered 9 white people (mostly cops) and wounded 13 more innocents. He shot Tim Ursin, who was only trying to save people from the burning hotel. He was himself finally killed with the help of a Marine helicopter in the area because the New Orleans police were outgunned and unprepared for such a crime.
My research on Tim Ursin’s heroic experience began in January 2009 with a letter to the New Orleans Police Department seeking access to general reports and photographs from the crime. I followed with a request to the New Orleans Coroners Office with a similar request for Essex’s autopsy report.
Nine months after I first requested simple documents related to one of NOLA's most historic and noteworthy events, I have received nothing. Zip. In those nine months, despite repeated letters, phone messages and emails, I have literally received ONE call back (last March) from a low-ranking media officer who assured me that she was passing my request to the NOPD Records Department and that I'd be hearing from them soon. Never happened.
Today, I called the New Orleans Coroner's Office, from whom I've been seeking similar records in multiple snail-mailings. Just before he hung up on me, badge-heavy and dyspeptic Chief Investigator John Gagliano -- to whom I had addressed three separate letters -- claimed he never got them and that all Essex records were destroyed by Katrina anyway. End of story. Click.
Two letters to New Orleans City Attorney Penya Moses-Fields have also gone unanswered ... even though Louisiana law requires agencies to respond to open-records requests within three days. Clearly, the law enforcement agencies of New Orleans remain unfazed by the law. It just gets in the way.
Now, I must why a government agency would hide documents that actually might make them look good? Could it be that they simply don't know how to be open? That ALL information imbues them with a power they cannot risk sharing with people (you) who simply can't handle the truth?
CitizenCrimeWatch.org has detailed frighteningly numerous government misdeeds in New orleans, many of them quite serious to the public health and safety of New Orleanians. But in my case, we're not talking about records that will blow the lid off city-government or police careers. It isn't an expose of Watergate-like proportion. We're talking about simple official documentation of a historic case that's been closed for almost 40 years. If ineptitude has cost New Orleans all of its pre-2005 historic documents, then you really are a Third World community. But I suspect it's just old-fashioned "we ain't gonna tell ya 'cuz we don't wanna." The barbarians are at the gate!
Your city's leadership is famously (and historically) inept and corrupt. Fixing that rests entirely in your hands. It's not just a change of mayors that's required, but a change in cultures ... and frankly that seems less likely than another mega-billion-dollar disaster in your city.
If New Orleans police agencies are incapable of protecting pieces of paper, how in the world could they be expected to protect people? If they feel no special obligation to the public's trust, how can they expect the public to trust them?
Bottom line, you shouldn't trust the government to always do what's right. You can't even trust them to do what's legal. Right now, New Orleans has a government apart from the people ... of itself, by itself, for itself.
The biggest mess you have wasn't created by Hurricane Katrina, but might have been exposed by the storm. If these easiest public service is made difficult, the core of your government is rotten. You're not the true enemy, but they will sacrifice you to protect their institutions. And it appears you're quite comfortable with that. Like sheep to the slaughter.
All my best,