The mayor who vowed to end city's 'culture of death'

Three days after taking office in May, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced he was replacing the chief of the city's corrupt and widely distrusted police force. His intention, he said, was to "transform the culture of death on the streets of New Orleans into a celebration of life".

Few elected officials in the Crescent City have ever alluded so bluntly to the shadow of fear that has been cast over it by years of violence, some of it perpetrated not by its citizens but by the police who are employed to protect them.

Landrieu, below, does not do candy-coating. He and the new head of the NOPD, Ronal Serpas, who was drafted in from Nashville, have already begun taking steps to dismantle the bureaucracy at the top of the department where captains have been paid big salaries to look after departments consisting sometimes of only one person.

More important, however, was Landrieu's decision upon taking office to ask the US Justice Department to investigate all that ails the NOPD. That step alone was an admission that the city itself could not undo the abuse, violence and corruption that has thrived for years. In the days after Katrina, it was not just Danziger. In June, five current or former officers were charged in the shooting to death of Henry Glover, 31, whose burned body turned up after Katrina.

It has been a head-spinning baptism for Landrieu whose sister, Mary, is Louisiana's senior US Senator, and whose father, Moon, was mayor 32 years ago. And the police department is only the half of it; he took office two weeks after the BP blowout off Louisiana's shores and then he found that the city's finances were in meltdown.

"The oil spill's much worse than we ever thought," Mr Landrieu told the New York Times yesterday. "The budget's much worse, the dysfunction is much worse, the NOPD is much worse. But, you know, that's why I signed up."

For now Mr Landrieu has some margin with voters who remember his predecessor, Ray Nagin, with little affection. There will be relief if justice is done in the Danziger case and no one thinks the NOPD can be allowed to carry on as before. But reinstating New Orleans' "celebration of life" would be a tough test for any politician.

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